Savvy consumers today want only quality food products for their families. But they also want that quality to be available to them at a comfortable price point. What they might not know are the intricate and complex behind-the-scenes activities railroads, short lines, trucking companies, and logistics providers perform successfully every day to bring that quality food to market at affordable prices. Just about every food product you can find in your local supermarket can ship by rail today, moving thousands of miles from growing fields to community grocery shelves.
The clockwork choreography performed within the infrastructure of today’s intermodal network is beyond impressive. It relies on trusted relationships between and among Class 1 railroads, short line railroads, trucking companies, food growers and processors, retailers, groceries, foodservice companies, warehousing providers, trans-load companies, and logistics and distribution companies. The goal for everyone in the food supply chain is to provide safe and cost-effective food delivery.
Here’s a look at some activities folks in the industry are performing to bring consistent, reliable, safe, and affordable food logistics and transportation services to shippers.
Bustle On The Rails
First, let’s address the skeptics who might have tried some type of rail or intermodal service in the distant past. “They might be skeptics because when they tried rail 20 or so years ago, it simply didn’t work for them,” notes Ted Prince, principal of T. Prince & Associates in Richmond, VA and board member of the Intermodal Transportation Institute at the University of Denver. “The thing to remember is that rail is a whole lot different today, offering world-class service to shippers. I think many people would be surprised by the number of food products already moving intermodally.”
Railroad companies have invested a lot of time, effort, and money expanding capacity, adding terminals, purchasing new locomotives and other equipment, and double-tracking their main lines, continues Prince. “Rail also has the ability to accommodate surge demand better than truck. Today’s new boxcars can handle almost 200,000 pounds of product with the new 72-foot-long boxcars. Rail provides excellent and predictable service with dedicated large unit trains. Transit times from the West Coast to Chicago are under 70 hours now.”
More recently, perishable goods like produce, ice cream, frozen pizza, and fresh fruits and vegetables are moving intermodally because of the improved service reliability and faster transit times, says Steve Branscum, group vice president of consumer products for BNSF Railway Company in Fort Worth, TX. He adds that shipments of refrigerated food products are the fastest-growing segment of the company’s intermodal business in percentage growth year over year.
Current deterrents haunting the trucking industry are tilting the scales in favor of intermodal rail. These include impending driver shortages, hours of service regulations, and mandatory EOBRs (Electronic On-Board Recorders). “Not only will there be a reduction in truck capacity, but a reduction in the productivity of the trucks as well and the speed at which trucks can make deliveries,” notes Zach England, vice president of C.R. England in Salt Lake City, UT. “Through our double-stack temperature-controlled intermodal service, we are riding on expedited trains, the fastest in the industry. In many cases, intermodal is faster than, if not comparable to, solo truck.”
Today’s advanced technologies allow real-time visibility so temperatures can be monitored and controlled throughout the food supply chain. Railcars can also be monitored to assure equipment is working properly. Any equipment corrections can be done remotely.