There are also more options—and cost savings—when it comes to the refrigerated rail cars and intermodal boxes themselves, says Finkbiner. For instance, the 72-foot rail boxcar (the biggest currently available) can hold up to four truckloads of palletized food when the boxcar is double-decked inside.
Union Pacific owns the largest fleet of refrigerated boxcars, says Finkbiner, most of which are 50-foot cars along with some 69-foot cars. However, earlier this year the company announced it would purchase 225 72-foot refrigerated boxcars.
“It was a great move on UP’s part, because railroads generally aren’t investing in rail cars these days. It also signals a huge vote of confidence in the intermodal reefer business, and I think that confidence is well placed when you see what’s happening with truck capacity,” says Finkbiner.
Ike Brown, vice chairman and president at NFI Intermodal, along with Scott Webb, senior vice president at NFI Intermodal, also credit North America’s Class I railroads for enhancing rail’s attractiveness to food shippers.
“Union Pacific and CSX are leading the charge to offer new and innovative temperature-controlled rail solutions to food shippers. They are embracing carload solutions, such as Railex, and leveraging their highly efficient intermodal container networks to enable low cost temperature-controlled containers for customers that need more frequent service or ship in smaller lot sizes,” the executives remark.
From their perspective, Brown and Webb believe the 53-foot temperature-controlled container has been a game changer in the industry.
“NFI is proud to lead the way with this equipment, which has fundamentally changed the cost structure of reefer truckload transportation—whether over-the-road (OTR) or rail,” say the two.
“Typical domestic intermodal trains can hold 140 trailers or 250 containers. The ability to spread the fixed cost of the train over more container loads is simply more efficient than traditional trailer-on-flatcar service.”
They add that, “Initially, the trade off—as it is with dry intermodal—was weight. The container/chassis combination is heavier than a trailer. NFI has worked with our partner, Hyundai, to reduce the weight of temperature-controlled containers from the initial build by over 750 pounds. Coupled with our network of ultra lightweight dray trucks, we have all but eliminated any weight disadvantage in the core intermodal lanes.”
NFI has made other improvements to temperature-controlled containers, according to Brown and Webb.
“They include working with Hyundai to improve the thermal efficiency of the reefer containers by almost 20 percent; loading reefer containers in the bottom well of the rail car to reduce fuel burn and improve security; and collaborating with our refrigeration unit partner, Thermo King, to customize our units to achieve industry-leading fuel consumption.”
Even something as seemingly simple as an insulated blanket can be improved upon, points out APL Logistics’ Howland.
“We’ve been able to move in to the new generation of insulated blankets to provide ‘freeze protect’ for products, rather than having to use a fully refrigerated unit,” he explains. For products that don’t require a constant temperature, just protection from extreme hot or cold temperatures, “then these blankets do a very good job on a five- to seven-day transit, and in intermodal that’s all you need.”
Overall, Howland says APL Logistics is getting more inquiries from customers about refrigerated capabilities. In the meantime, the company is continuing to make sizeable investments in information technology, particularly in load optimization and routing.