Thanks, Mr. 2nd Trick Op, for your words of welcome.
Yeah, intermodal is one area of railroading providing a very visible marker of the dramatic changes the railroads have gone through during the past 40 years. It represents the regulatory, organizational, equipment, infrastructure, operational and marketing changes that have taken place to keep the industry relevant and, since the early 1990's, has provided an engine of growth and reversal of 70 years of market share decline. It also represents the bigger picture changes within the transportation industry, with the shifting towards a more-efficient intermodal transportation network (where each mode is utilized according to its economic strengths) meeting the needs of shifting national and global production and distribution.
Of course, arguably the biggest influence on intermodal, like all of freight railroading, has been the deregulation commencing in the late 1970's, which allowed the railroads pricing freedom, the ability to write individual contracts with its customers, and, the ability to freely enter/exit markets.
Organizationally, with the outside influences of deregulation and the superiority of trailer/container-based merchandise shipping for a whole host of reasons, railroads began to understand the importance and profit-potential of intermodal. Up until the 1980's many roads considered intermodal to be a "step-child", marginal and a nuisance, and, cannibalizing their existing carload traffic. With the new opportunities presented them in the '80's, railroads began to bring in strong marketing folks (many from the trucking industry), organized them so that the business' leadership had management over sales/marketing and operations with bottom-line responsibility, and, in a greater sense, as opportunity and profitability rose, afforded organizational status where there often was none.
On the equipment front, as you alluded to and as Mr. Cowford cogently put forth earlier in this thread, the industry has had to deal with the mismatch between trailer (container) lengths and lifecylces and those of the railcars upon which they are carried. Despite early railroad innovation like roadrailer and containers (like NYC's flexivan and one might argue, the PRR's use of LCL containers earlier in the century), the industry's need for universality in the interconnected world of railroading has played a big part of what has succeeded and when, as well as an overarching economic characteristic of attempting to maximize the amount of traffic carried on a per trainload basis (as do all modes with their vehicles). Also, one other important part of the change, as the industry's management has evolved to meet the needs inherent with the freedoms of deregulation, has been an astute awareness of its capital needs and rigorous management of its assets, which has shifted equipment innovation and ownership/management to 3rd parties, whether owned/operated cooperatively by multi-carriers, like TTX, or to shippers or outside interests. Lastly (and added via editing), probably the single biggest intermodal development, besides the market freedoms afforded with deregulation, is that of doublestack. Whether developed by SP or a steamship line, or both, I can't recall, it has provided the vehicle for the industry's participation in the huge upswing in (merchandise) imports and has subsequently morphed into a technology used to move domestic merchandise traffic with great productivity and excellant returns for the industry. Simple in concept by adding big gains in the amount of freight capacity per train, it provides excellant economic results for shippers and carriers alike.
On the infrastructure front, intermodal has played the role in providing an alternative system for more-efficiently moving merchandise traffic vs. switching-intensive operation and light-density lines. As railroads were deregulated and intermodal management became more-creative, the shift from smaller, circus-style terminals to larger mechanized hub terminals with well-managed, efficient trucking feeding traffic has been acknowledged as necessary to providing profitablity and growth. Beginning in the '80's with international traffic and accelerating in the '90's for domestic traffic, the need for routes cleared to 19'6" or 20'6" doublestack has predominated infrastructure initiatives.
Operationally, along with the acknowledgement that you can only make the kind of money to support re/investment in the business is with large mechanized hub terminals, also came the realization that on the linehaul side it had to be done in high-volume, dedicated and reliable (and oftentimes fast, too) intermodal trains/service.
And, lastly, on the marketing front, and pulling all of the above together, with marketing freedom in intermodal came management that responded to the opportunities inherent with that freedom. Like any business, the marketeers brought the concept of segmenting the marketplace into lines-of-business which could be organized by their individual characteristics and to bring to bear management of each line to respond to deficiencies, take advantage of opportunities, and provide service that met its needs, with the goal of the kind of profitability necessary for long-term success. On the market side, each carrier's intermodal position and business reflected their overall position with merchandise-oriented roads more-heavily involved and reliant on intermodal earlier on. As railroads have evolved during the deregulated era and during which time the overall economy has demanded more rigor, management and competition for the industry's lifeblood, capital, and railroad managements focused to meet those demands, like equipment, some/much of the market innovation has come from 3rd parties, with the railroads providing the basic wholesale linehaul (track, crews, power) while the 3rd parties provided the "retailing" end of the service, including +/- the sales/marketing; terminals; pick-up/delivery; trailers/containers/roadrailers; cars; and, overall management of the system. Of course, we have seen railroads provide innovative retailing (truck-like) initiatives like Triple Crown, Conrail Mercury (which is now NS's Thoroughbred Direct), and CSX's CMX which is now CSX Intermodal, to name a few.
To me, it makes sense. Much has been driven by outside influences: government promotion/regulation, larger economic changes, and trends in our larger transportation system, but also from the economics inherent in the mode, industry and this particular railroad technology. How the railroads have managed things seems to fit with the organic nature of organizations responding to the world in which they live: for the industry, focus upon rationalization early on, but now growth, and productivity; adapting to deregulation and larger market forces; and, becoming very focused upon capital requirements and asset management. As we all know, nothing is ever cast in stone and there's always plenty of threats (and opportunities) on the horizon, but, I'd sure take these past 25-30 years over the previous 20. I can't help but marvel at the duration, adaptability and relevance of this 185 year old technology!