(June 19) As shippers prepare to start the new Washington potato season, the state’s produce railcar pool is already seeing high demand.

Service has been so successful, its backers are calling for additional cars to help fill demand.

The Washington railcar pool program leases refrigerated railcars for Washington produce shippers’ use.

Fewer shippers than expected participated in the program’s inaugural run last year when it hauled only 77 loads. This season, Rail Logistics, Overland Park, Kan., expects to haul 250-300 loads, said Mike Begnaud, vice president of sales and marketing.

In May, all 31 of the program’s railcars were either loaded, en route to their destination or headed back to Washington for reloading, according to the Washington State Potato Commission, Moses Lake.

Chris Voigt, the commission’s executive director, said if new cars are ordered, it would likely be mid- to late summer before they could be in service.

While Washington’s processing potatoes begin harvest after the Fourth of July, the state’s fresh potato season begins in mid-July and runs through early November.

“The timing is right. The program is starting to take off,” Voigt said. “It’s a great sign for us and our industry.”

Because the railroads have become profitable again, private companies such as Rail Logistics and Railex LLC, a division of Ampco Distribution Services LLC, Riverhead, N.Y., have started to see the opportunities and are venturing into the business, Voigt said.

Railex in October started service of its 55-car unit train that runs from Wallula, Wash., to Rotterdam, N.Y. As a unit train, all the cars stay hooked together during the entire trip.

Both terminals have cold storage facilities.

Fresh potatoes remain the highest-volume produce item hauled by Rail Logistics. The company ships a lot of frozen fruit and vegetables and is working to increase apple shipments, Begnaud said. Fresh shipments account for half the loads, he said.

Thanks to a federal $2 million appropriation, the pool provides refrigerated railcars that have often been in short supply in the Northwest. Washington’s legislature provided the state’s transportation department funds to begin the pool operation.

“The funding is one thing,” Begnaud said. “If the shippers don’t use the service, it won’t work. Now, they’re making it work.”

“I think you will see some more market movement come out of Railex,” said Paul Esposito, Railex’s vice president of logistics. “You should see a real increase in apples, potatoes and onions coming out of the Pacific Northwest. We are already looking at an expansion of commodities and are talking with shippers of pears, cherries and other stone fruit.”