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Cold Train one hot transportation option

The rails at the port of Quincy, WA, are humming. Cold Train, operated by Rail Logistics of Overland Park, KS, has developed a transportation model that allows fresh producers in the Pacific Northwest to take advantage of refrigerated rail service that moves commodities to Chicago and points beyond in a timely and efficient manner.

“We have a different model,” said Pat Boss, public affairs consultant to both the port of Quincy and Cold Train.

ColdTrainAn aerial view of the Cold Train Express Refrigerated Intermodal Service at the port of Quincy, WA. Shippers of fresh commodities such as apples, potatoes, onions, pears, carrots and sweet corn are using rail as a transportation alternative to trucking. (Photo courtesy of Boss Consulting)Mr. Boss said that Cold Train has been so successful moving commodities such as apples, potatoes and onions that Rail Logistics has upped the ante.

“We maxed out [our containers] about two months ago,” he told The Produce News Nov. 16. “Cold Train invested in 200 more containers in October.”

The general concept of rail service is not new in the Pacific Northwest. Mr. Boss said that Amtrak used to operate the Fruit Express a decade ago. “Amtrak hooked up cars on the back of passenger trains,” he said. But Fruit Express was among the services to fall as the federal government cut back on program funding.

“Those shippers already had a pretty good history using that service,” he added. “We knew there was an interest.”

In 2010, Rail Logistics launched the Cold Train Express Refrigerated Intermodal Service in partnership with Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway and the port of Quincy. The port provides the physical facility, rail track, rail siding and loading equipment. Cold Train owns the containers and works with producers to load and deliver commodities to the port.

According to the port, the facility includes more than “1 million square feet of cold-storage warehousing in close proximity to provide perishable and produce shippers with distribution, cross-dock and storage capacity in and out of Washington state.”

“We take containers to the [producer’s] location,” Mr. Boss said, adding that filled containers are then trucked back to the port where they are subsequently loaded onto the Cold Train. Contents of the containers remain intact until they are offloaded at customer destinations.

Cold Train loads and departs from Quincy six days a week. Statistics reveal a positive picture. According to Mr. Boss, approximately 80 percent of the region’s major apple shippers use Cold Train. Looking at other major producers, approximately 70 percent of the region’s potato producers use the service, and approximately 60 percent of the region’s onion producers are onboard.

An Aug. 28 report issued by the Globalwise Inc. titled The Washington Apple Industry: Contributions to the State Economy and the Important Role of Exports discussed the Cold Train, stating, “About 70 percent of the eastbound cargo [moved by Cold Train] is fresh Washington apples, with remainder being other fresh and processed fruits and vegetables.”

“We’re the first train I’m aware of to haul cherries,” Mr. Boss added. Pear, carrot and sweet corn shippers are also using the service.

Each of Cold Train’s 300 refrigerated containers has a 42,500-pound capacity. Rail Logistics provides four-day service from Quincy to Chicago. A five-day transportation window is available into the Ohio Valley. Transit to the East Coast is accomplished in approximately six days.

“It is a UPS Train or Z Train,” Mr. Boss said, meaning that time constraints must be met.

In addition to expeditious delivery, Mr. Boss said that Cold Train backhauls cargo to distribution centers in the Pacific Northwest. “We have full containers going to the East and back from the East,” he stated.

The service is helping companies reduce their carbon footprint, and Mr. Boss said that BNSF Railway’s carbon emission reduction estimator webpage helps customers meet environmental goals while ensuring cost competitiveness and efficient transportation.

“We’ve checked all the boxes,” he said. By addressing trucking issues, he said, “It’s adding extra capacity for shippers.”

Mr. Boss said that the problems experienced by apple growers in Michigan this season point to the importance and viability of a service like Cold Train. Drought conditions and a wave of freezes decimated the state’s 2012 crop.

“When the drought occurred, we started getting calls from processors,” he said. “A high volume [of apples] was needed to meet processor demands.”

Although Washington’s apple growers had weather issues of their own to contend with in 2012, the effects were generally moderate. By the beginning of November, it was determined that Washington had produced its largest-ever apple crop, settling in at approximately 121.5 million boxes.

“It was great that Washington had extra apples,” Mr. Boss commented. “It could have been a totally different scenario if there hadn’t been excess apples in Washington.”

As for the importance of Cold Train, Mr. Boss observed, “Had we not been able to do some of these things, there would have been some permanent job losses in Michigan.”

He said that businesses in the Midwest are exploring the feasibility of locating secondary processor plants in Washington as a strategy to cope with environmental issues.

“We’ve got irrigation, and a lot of states are taking notice of that,” Mr. Boss said. “It’s an economic development driver for processors. Certainly the Northwest has its own issues. But more easterly areas seem to have greater problems with weather.”

Mr. Boss expects that Cold Train will enjoy future growth as the port of Quincy continues to market its capability as a regional distribution hub for fresh produce.