Idaho potato shippers finding success with intermodal shipments
by Tim Linden | March 17, 2009
A transportation concept that has been used off and on for many years is once again helping a segment of the produce industry get its product to market in a timely and economical fashion.
The concept is trailers-on-flat-cars, also known as TOFC, intermodal or "pigs." On a weekly basis, 25-30 loads of potatoes from Idaho are being hauled south to the Ogden, UT, loading ramp of Union Pacific Railroad. There, trailer is removed from the tractor and loaded on a flat car for the cross- country journey.
In Chicago, the UP-originated load is transferred to the lines of CSX for its final journey to an intermodal-unloading terminal near Philadelphia. When the load arrives in Pennsylvania, five days after the origination of the shipment, the trailers are reunited with truck tractors for delivery to the final destinations.
"This program is being used primarily for delivery to a four-state region in the Northeast," said Travis Blacker, president of the Idaho Grower-Shipper Association, which is offering the service to its members through collaboration with C.H. Robinson Worldwide. Included are the big city markets of New York, Philadelphia and Boston.
Last September, IGSA joined the nationwide network of association and shipper groups that are part of the C.H. Robinson-Western Growers Association partnership to aggregate volume for better service and rates. Mr. Blacker said that this intermodal concept grew out of that collaboration and gained favor because it is cost-efficient and good for the environment. "It is saving our members about 10 percent on their transportation costs and is also more fuel-efficient, which reduces the carbon footprint [of shipping cross country]," Mr. Blacker said.
He added that about 70 percent of IGSA's nearly 40 members are working with C.H. Robinson for their transportation needs, but he is not certain how many are taking advantage of this intermodal offering. Each shipper works directly with the logistics firm to satisfy its own needs.
"There are three C.H. Robinson people devoted to our program," he said. Mr. Blacker noted that besides creating efficiencies, the program also relieves pressure on shippers trying to get trucks to come to eastern Idaho during the snowy winter months.
"For eastern Idaho [where many of the potato packing sheds are located], it is difficult to find trucks, especially in the winter," he said. "Sometimes the snow makes it very difficult to get up there. The availability of trucks in the winter months is typically pretty tight."
Although fuel prices have fallen and the overall demand for trucks has decreased because of the economy, Mr. Blacker said that has not resulted in an oversupply of equipment. In fact, he said that trucks have been sitting on the East Coast one to three days longer in this poor economy trying to get a backhaul West this winter.
No one is certain what the transportation situation will be this summer, but the warmer months tend to bring an increase in demand and an accompanying increase in truck rates. Mr. Blacker said that Idaho sends potatoes to market throughout the year, so the TOFC program will have utility year round. He said that it also could be used for other Idaho crops, such as onions and apples. Using this system adds about one extra day of transit time, which is acceptable for items such as potatoes, onions and apples.
The IGSA executive praised Union Pacific officials for their work in making the program a success. He said that they have pledged to increase capacity as the demand increases.