(Sept. 15) Washington produce shippers have struggled for years with a lack of railcar availability, but a recent agreement between the Washington State Department of Transportation and Overland Park, Kan.-based Rail Logistics LC is expected to alleviate the problem.

The state plans lease up to 50 cars at $1,000 per month per car under the terms of a three-year contract, with a two-year option, signed in mid-August.

“It serves as a guarantee to Rail Logistics that there will be significant business in Washington to keep cars available for our shippers,” said Karen Bonaudi, assistant executive director of the Washington State Potato Commission, Moses Lake.

Bonaudi said volume out of Washington is seasonal and limited compared with volume from other areas served by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Co., Fort Worth, Texas. Those factors had made rail service and car availability in the state difficult, slow and unreliable, sources said.

Paul Vander Stoep, manager of the Mount Vernon-based Washington Perishable Shippers Cooperative Association, said BNSF requires seven-day advance notice to reserve a car but that it takes up to 12 days for cars to show up.

“It sure makes planning and sales a lot better,” Vander Stoep said. “This time of year, railroad supply isn’t bad, but as you get into it, there are a lot of cars going east and you never know when they’re going to come back. Having a dedicated pool of cars is going to be much better for people selling carload business.”

Mike Begnaud, vice president of sales and marketing for Rail Logistics, said his employer tested a load of frozen cherries and berries July 17 — a month before the contract was signed. He expects to begin shipping fresh apples, onions and potatoes the week of Sept. 18.

Cars are being staged in Quincy and Pasco in Washington, he said.

Rail Logistics will manage the fleet, but the vast majority of shipments will be on BNSF trains. Begnaud said the service was available for deliveries throughout the U.S.

Shippers can still use BNSF refrigerated cars, and Begnaud said Rail Logistics could increase the number of cars it leases to the state if there is significant demand.

“We certainly hope so,” he said. “We’ll find out how many cars we need for next year.”

State agriculture leaders had been contemplating a railcar pool since 2002. Bonaudi said the original idea was to buy refrigerated railcars for use by the state’s shippers, but that idea proved too costly.

“This is a new model,” she said. “That’s why it takes this long to get a contract. People were reinventing the wheel here.”