All Aboard The Produce Train
New refrigerated rail service moves fruits and vegetables cross country in three days.
Every Thursday morning, a six-and-a-half mile long train makes the cross-country trek from Wallula, WA to Rotterdam, NY.
The train brings 55 refrigerated rail cars filled with potatoes, onions, apples and pears from growers in the Pacific Northwest to the East Coast, where the produce is loaded onto trucks and shipped to supermarket chains.
"It's a new kind of logistics platform," says Paul Esposito of Railex LLC, a division of Ampco Distribution Services, a Riverhead, NY, foodservice distributor. Railex teamed up with Union Pacific and CSX railroads, which provide the rail service, to move the goods transcontinental in as little as three days.
With transportation costs skyrocketing, Esposito believes that Railex offers a lower-cost, faster and more secure alternative to trucking. The train consumes 40,000 gallons of diesel fuel on each one-way trip, vs. the 150,000 gallons of fuel that trucks would use moving the same amount of product. That adds up to about a $13 million savings in fuel costs, according to the company.
Railex works with about 20 growers in Washington, Oregon, California and Idaho, enabling them to target the East Coast. The company guarantees to get the product to New York on schedule. "At times of the year, it's not only difficult to get a rail car, it's also difficult to get a truck out of the Pacific Northwest—especially if the trucks are busy hauling Christmas trees or nursery stock," says Esposito.
Railex built 200,000-square-foot refrigerated warehouses at both ends of the circuit. The journey begins at the Wallula facility, where Union Pacific drops off an empty train. The warehouse has a two-and-a-half mile loop of railroad track inside. Railex uses its own locomotive to pull the train through the building, where it loads 19 64-foot refrigerated cars at a time. Next, it seals off the cars and delivers them back to Union Pacific.
UP uses its own crew and locomotives to bring the train as far as Chicago, where they transfer the train to CSX, who takes it the rest of the way to Rotterdam.
The rail cars feature Intelliset Star Track GPS units for tracking, temperature monitoring and control capacity. "We can turn a unit on or off remotely," says Esposito, "and know exactly within a mile where it is."
Once the train arrives at the Rotterdam warehouse, workers uncouple the cars in 14 boxcar segments to minimize shifting, and pull them into the temperature-controlled building. They're able to empty the entire train—approximately 160 truckloads—within 24 hours.
One of the reasons Railex picked Rotterdam, which is 145 miles north of New York City, is that it's centrally located in the Northeast. Shippers are able to target major markets from New York to Boston and all the way down to Virginia. "We can pretty much hit anything out of that area," says Esposito.
The program, only 21 weeks old, has been successful. The trains are approximately 85 percent full and most of the major retailers on the East Coast are buying from them, including such retailers as Wal-Mart, Hannaford Bros., Food Lion, Sysco, Stop and Shop and Giant Foods.
"It's a service that we can add to our logistical toolbox," says John Patriquin, director of logistics for Hannaford Bros. Co., a Scarborough, ME-based supermarket chain. "We can use it as a pass through, or as just a transportation play."
Hannaford can also use the service to partner with its vendors and have them "forward deploy" or store product at the Rotterdam warehouse. The company then buys the product from there. "It gets us closer," he explains, "because of the proximity to our Schodack, NY, warehouse, this puts the vendors in our backdoor. Instead of being 3,000 miles away, they're 30 miles away."