Port of Tacoma opens the North Intermodal Yard, the first dockside intermodal railyard on the West Coast, on October 13, 1981.

  • By Margaret Riddle
  • Posted 8/29/2008
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8749

On October 13, 1981, the Port of Tacoma opens the North Intermodal Yard , the first dockside intermodal rail yard on the West Coast. Situated on the main port peninsula between Terminal 7 on the Sitcum Waterway and Terminal 4 on the Blair Waterway, the North Intermodal Yard offers an efficient connecting point between sea, road and rail.  The new facility soon elevates the Port of Tacoma to the status of a major West Coast port.   

Intermodal Transportation


The use of large cargo containers quickly revolutionized the transport industry.  The method insured greater safety, efficiency, and lower cost.  Intermodal yards connected  modes of transportation -- trains, trucks and ships -- to further speed transport of container goods.  The Port of Tacoma offered a good location -- extensive tideflats that connected with the deep waters of Commencement Bay -- and as early as the 1960s the Port began planning for development of an intermodal yard under the leadership of Executive Director Roy Perry. 

Totem Ocean Trailer Express (TOTE) moved from the Port of Seattle to the Port of Tacoma in June 1976 to accommodate the region’s growing trade with Alaska. Local 23 of the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union (ILWU) soon broke records for its ability to move goods quickly. Deregulation of rail and truck rates in 1980 had the short-term effect of lowering rates, making intermodal transportation the method of choice. 

The North Intermodal Yard  

The contract for construction of the North Intermodal Yard was awarded in May 1981 to Woodworth & Company of Tacoma, the yards opening for business on October 13 of that year.  The NIM yards quickly established the Port’s reputation as one of the country’s most modern port facilities.  

Closer to Alaska and Asia than rival California ports, the Tacoma yard was capable of out-producing the Port of Seattle.  Its Tacoma location was also ideal for moving goods to inland cities and to the East Coast due to its easy access to interstate highways and rail lines.  By 1987 things were going so well for the Port of Tacoma that its revenue bonds were upgraded by Standard & Poor from single A to single A+.  The success of the Port’s NIM yards led to its expansion in 1987 and eventually to development of its South Intermodal Yard.     

In 2002 the North Intermodal Yard set productivity records with 7,312 transfers from ship to rail mostly due to direct connections with China. Another factor accounting for this increase was the state-of-the-art facility, which had undergone a $7.8 million upgrade with a new computerized intermodal management system.  This allowed greater ease of railcar movement within the yard.    

More Intermodal Yards

The Port’s excellent intermodal capacity helped it grow rapidly and more yards were added.  In 2008 the Port of Tacoma maintains four intermodal yards: the North Intermodal yard (711 Port of Tacoma Road); South Intermodal Yard (1918 Lincoln Avenue), Hyundai Intermodal Yard/Washington United Terminals (1815 Port of Tacoma Road), and the Pierce County Intermodal Yard/Evergreen Line (4015 SR 509, North Frontage Road). 

The Port’s top trading partners are China, Japan, and Alaska. Meat, grains, and packaged food, aircraft and parts, autos and auto parts, iron and steel, and wood and glass products head the product list. Modern trains now are an essential link in intermodal transportation and most of the containers used are “doublestacks.” Principal customers for the North Intermodal  Yard in 2008 are “K” Line and Yang Ming.    

The Port of Tacoma’s North Intermodal Yard remains unique for two reasons: It was the world's first on-dock intermodal yard when it opened in 1981, and as recently as 2002 it was the only all-straddle carrier operation -- a heavy-load container handler -- in the Western United States (MarineLink.com).  


“Unique Port Railyard to Speed Up Shipping Container Flow Across the Rockies,” The News Tribune, October 14, 1981, p. B-12; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Port of Tacoma -- Thumbnail History, Part 3" (by Kit Oldham),  “Port of Tacoma -- A Slideshow” (by Kit Oldham), and “Port of Tacoma becomes new home of TOTE shipping line on June 4, 1976” (by Julie Van Pelt), http://www.historylink.org  (accessed August 7-23, 2008);  “Emerging as a Major League Container Port” and “Port Facts & Stats,” Port of Tacoma website accessed August 20, 2008 (http://www.portoftacoma.com/page.aspx?cid=29); “Tacoma Intermodal Yard Sets Record,” February 26, 2003, Marine Link.com website accessed August 20, 2008 (http://www.marinelink.com/Story/Tacoma+Intermodal+Yard+Record-10835.html); “Bond Rating Upgraded for Port of Tacoma,” Business Digest column,  The Seattle Times, June 22, 1987, p. C-3. ; Theresa Morrow, “Former Army Engineer Takes Helm at Port of Tacoma,” Ibid., January 24, 1989, p. F-1; Glenn Pascall, “New Era for Port as Hyundai Shows Off New Terminal/Facility Features Intermodal Rail Yard for Fast Unloading,” Ibid., September 23, 1990, p. E-3;  C. R. Roberts, “Unloading,” The News Tribune, July 23, 1999, p. D-1. 

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