Take The Alternate Route

Shipping by rail and intermodal controls costs, takes trucks off highways.


“Typically we’re shipping more than 100 intermodal units using one set of locomotives on our intermodal trains vs. the over-the-road truck model where it’s one set of power for each trailer,” says Norfolk Southern’s Elkins.

While intermodal is a popular option for shipping processed foods, many produce growers opt to ship via rail using railcars instead of trailers or containers.

Rail Reduces Costs

Don Seil, general manager of Davis, CA-based California Northern Railroad (CFNR), says shipping by rail is one of the most economical modes of transportation due to the added capacity of a railcar. One freight railcar can carry the equivalent of up to four trailer or container loads, according to Seil.

“The railroads are competitive and we want the business, so per case or per ton, you can get a better value with rail,” says Charles M. Patterson, senior vice president and chief commercial officer of Jacksonville, FL-based RailAmerica, owner and operator of more than 40 short-line and regional railroads, including CFNR. “The food companies have taken notice. From 2007 to 2009 our food segment has grown 12 percent.”

Customer service is a top priority for today’s railroad companies.

“With RailAmerica being a geographically diverse family of small railroads, we’re able to give that personal service with the advantages of a large company,” says Patterson. “We provide a service/price combo that customers find very valuable.”

Union Pacific, one of North America’s largest freight rail companies, has been enhancing customer service by way of infrastructure updates. Newly laid track and upgraded signals allow the trains to move more quickly and smoothly.

“We took the opportunity during the overall slowdown of the business to put capital into the railroad,” says John Philp, AVP of food and refrigerated products for Union Pacific, based in Omaha, NE. “From 2005 to 2009, UP invested $14.3 billion in infrastructure, representing the largest five-year spend in the rail industry’s 148 year history. In this year alone, even coming off the recession, we’ve invested $2.6 billion in infrastructure.”

Many produce growers along the West Coast ship their product east via rail because it’s the most economical way to cover the most amount of ground. Crops such as potatoes, carrots, apples, grapes and cherries are all sent east on railcars.

“The typical breakdown is when you’re moving something 500 miles or greater, the railcar is more efficient than a truck because of the additional capacity,” says R.W. “Bob” Gill, marketing manager for CFNR. “Most of our products have long east destinations, meaning their final delivery is east of the Mississippi River. The greatest portion goes to the Southeast, the Northeast and even Canada, making rail an attractive mode.”

For customers seeking the fastest way to move their product cross-country, new high-speed lines are making rail not only cost-competitive, but time-competitive with trucking.

Eastward Expressways

Part of Union Pacific’s multi-billion dollar investment went toward the Produce Rail Express, a train of 55 refrigerated railcars that start in California or Washington and arrives in New York in five days.

The process starts in Washington where 19 railcars are loaded at once to achieve maximum speed. From there, “the train never stops to pick anything up as it makes its way east,” says UP’s Philp. “Those 55 cars take off the same time every week, so it’s very timely and reliable. In Albany, NY, we invested in a specialized warehouse that breaks down the load for trucking to supermarket chains, foodservice suppliers and restaurant suppliers. This service was launched only three years ago and has been successful.”

Another high-speed rail option is the Cold Train, operated by Rail Logistics LC, an asset-based 3PL specializing in rail services throughout North America, that runs on the BNSF track. The Cold Train takes 52 hours to get from the Port of Quincy in Quincy, WA, to Chicago.

“Cold train is an outgrowth of a service we instituted five years ago for the Washington DOT when we provided a fleet of reefer railcars to the Washington Produce Shippers Pool,” says Mike Lerner, managing member of Rail Logistics, Overland Park, KS.

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