A new refrigerated rail service is scheduled to begin serving customers of Pacific Northwest grower-shippers April 1.

Cold Train set to roll to Midwest in spring

Operated by Overland Park, Kan.-based Rail Logistics LC, the Cold Trains, as they’ve been dubbed, will run six days a week from the Northwest to the Midwest, said Mike Begnaud, vice president of sales and marketing for Rail Logistics, and will cover the 1,900 miles in three days.

“The service will be roughly one-half day quicker to Illinois than trucks,” he said.

In addition, freight rates will be up to 10% lower than trucking costs, Begnaud said.

The Cold Train line will run from a recently constructed intermodal rail yard in Quincy, Wash., to the Chicago suburb of Cicero. Quincy, on the east side of the Cascade Mountain range, is positioned close to the Wenatchee and Yakima Valleys, the state’s major apple, pear and cherry growing regions, and in the heart of Washington potato producing farmland.

The new rail yard was initially meant as a step off for trains carrying produce west to Seattle and Tacoma, Wash., said Patrick Connelly, a commissioner for the Port of Quincy. But the port has had little success competing against trucks, he said.

Rail Logistics may help the port pay its bills. It was persistent in negotiating agreements with the port and Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railroad, Connelly said. The agreements are designed to provide sufficient volume for the railroad and the speed Rail Logistics needed to provide the service, he said.

The rail yard is not Quincy’s only fresh produce transportation attribute.

“Several companies operate cold storage facilities on or close to the yard,” Connelly said.

Among those companies is Moses Lake, Wash.-based Columbia Colstor Inc., which has six Quincy warehouses offering 900,000 square feet of cold storage, said Mike Bolander, vice president of operations. He is optimistic the Cold Train will be a viable option.

“Truck rates fluctuate so much with the cost of fuel,” he said.

Columbia Colstor also owns a cross dock facility in Wenatchee, said Russ Lytle, the company’s regional manager in Quincy.

“We’re anticipating our warehouses will provide consolidation service for the loads headed to the Midwest,” he said. “We have a 30,000 square-foot refrigerated back dock adjacent to the yard.”

The Cold Trains will be the second dedicated rail service from Washington. Railex LLC, Riverhead, N.Y., launched its Walla Walla-to-Rotterdam, N.Y., service several years ago. Walla Walla is about 150 miles southeast of Quincy.

Grower-shippers originally greeted the Railex service with skepticism, said Charles Pomianek, executive director of the Wenatchee Valley Traffic Association, which tracks shipments for fruit packers.

In a short time, Pomianek said the response from growers whose customers were using Railex was: “What a great service; we love it.”

He expects a similar response to the Rail Logistics’ Cold Train.

“These guys (Rail Logistics) know the freight business; they’re very professional,” Pomianek said.

The Rail Logistics staff has been cultivating Midwestern retailers, he said.

“When the customers are interested, the growers get excited,” Pomianek said.

There is plenty of fuel for excitement. The states of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio purchased about 11 million cartons of Washington apples and more than 1 million cartons of pears during the 2008-09 season, the most recent year for which statistics are available, Pomianek said.

Major Washington apple grower-shippers are taking notice.

“We’re evaluating the Cold Train as a potential service to our customers,” said Bob Mast, vice president of sales and marketing for Columbia Marketing International Corp., Wenatchee.

The Railex service has benefited some East Coast customers for Yakima-based Sage Fruit Co. LLC, said Chuck Sinks, president of sales and marketing.

“We’re very open-minded about the Cold Train,” he said. “We’re taking a serious look at that service.”

Additional transportation options are always good for our customers and their consumers, said Scott Hanses, vice president of C.M. Holtzinger Fruit Co. LLC, Yakima.

“The Cold Train could be an exciting option,” he said.

That view was echoed by Kirk Mayer, manager of the Washington Growers Clearing House, Wenatchee. It tracks fruit prices for its more than 2,000 grower members.

“Trucks now carry about 95% of all Washington apples and pears,” Mayer said.

The Cold Train’s speedy delivery also will present Washington cherry grower-shippers with the first opportunity to ship by rail, Pomianek said.

Rail Logistics has been arranging produce shipments out of the Northwest for several years, Begnaud said, and already has an existing customer base for the Cold Train.

“We’ve been receiving some very encouraging response,” he said.

Tree fruit is not the only produce Rail Logistics hopes the Cold Train will attract.

“We believe potatoes have been an overlooked commodity,” Begnaud said.

Washington State ranks second in the nation in potato production, according to the Washington State Potato Commission, Moses Lake. Sales of Washington potatoes exceeded $46 million for the 2007-08 season, the most recent season for which statistics are available.

Produce shipped on the Cold Trains will ride in new 53-foot refrigerated containers, which offer about 33% greater capacity than do the standard 40 foot containers used for both land and sea shipping. Rail Logistics ordered 70 of the new containers to be built especially for the Cold Trains, Begnaud said.

“These will be the first 53-footers to operate in the U.S.,” he said.

The new containers will be satellite monitored and have two-way communication that permits Rail Logistics to make temperature and other adjustments remotely, Begnaud said.

The company hopes the Cold Train will have paying customers going from and returning to Quincy.

“We hope to use west-to-east leg for meat and other products from the Midwest for domestic and export markets,” Begnaud said.

Yet other legs could be added in the future, he said. First under consideration is a leg from the Midwest to the deep South, he said.

Rail Logistics has scheduled a shipper open house in Quincy Feb. 18 to give potential customers full details on the Cold Train, Begnaud said.