(Aug. 18) Allen Lund remembers the old days before the interstate highway system, when trucks headed from Sacramento, Calif., to Reno, Nev., would stop at the top of Donner Pass to adjust their brakes before making the treacherous descent.

“There were a lot of steep, rugged hills,” said the 65-year-old Lund, who was a truck driver long before he founded his $260 million transportation firm, Allen Lund Co. Inc, La Canada, Calif., in 1976. “You’d look over the side and there’d be wrecked trucks. There were a lot of dangerous mountain passes.”

The interstate system, which was started in 1956 and complete in 1991, turns 50 this year. The 46,837-mile network did more than make roads straighter and wider. It dramatically altered the produce and transportation industries.

“You take them for granted now,” said Lund, who also worked as a heavy equipment operator in the 1960s, helping build I-15 in Utah. “It’s one of the greatest things that ever happened to the produce industry and the eating public. We have been able to deliver our products fast and fresh. It’s huge.”

Dale DeBerry, director of sales for Progresso Produce Ltd., Hidalgo, Texas, also drove trucks before going to work as a buyer for Wallace Fruit & Vegetable, Edinburg, Texas, in 1959.

“I remember how hard it was to get anywhere fast,” said DeBerry, 68. “We’d be in terrible shape without the roads we have now. There was one road in Oklahoma that you couldn’t drive more than 15 miles per hour because it was so rough and full of potholes, and that was a federal highway.”

LOCOMOTIVE MOJO

Before the interstates, most highways were two lanes, undivided and ran through towns with traffic, stop signs, stoplights and railroad crossings. The railroads were the fast, efficient way to move freight.

Joe Procacci, chief executive officer and chairman of Procacci Bros. Sales Corp., Philadelphia, said that in the 1950s rail cars loaded on the West Coast could reach the East Coast in eight days. Service eroded, however, eventually slipping to 12-14 days. Trucks from California, he said, now reach Philadelphia in as little as three days.

Rail spurs have vanished from some shipping points.

“We haven’t loaded a rail car since the early 1970s,” DeBerry said. “Rail got to where the delivery time was so poor you couldn’t afford to ship by rail. Trucks got bigger and better. Roads got wider and better. You did better with trucks than you could with rail.”

Bill Sykes, president of The Sykes Co., Nogales, Ariz., said shippers on the Mexican border were still using rail when he started his company in the 1970s, but the shift was on in the 1980s after the completion of I-19. Sykes said that by 1990 shipments from Nogales were 100% by truck.

Tomatoes, one of the largest volume commodities crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, were picked green and loaded on rail cars, but Sykes said the switch to trucks gave shippers more control in the ripening process.

Procacci, 79, said the evolution of trucking not only reduced reliance on rail but allowed produce companies to ship highly perishable products, such as strawberries, by truck instead of costly air freight.

PUT IT WHERE THEY WANT IT

The interstate highways allowed truckers to bypass cities and towns on limited-access highways with higher speed limits, passing lanes, paved shoulders, median barriers and easily accessible rest areas. It was also easier to deliver fresh produce to nongrowing areas — even if the industry’s logistics and technology were nothing like what the industry uses today.

“There were no large truck companies that specialized in shipping produce then,” Sykes said.

That changed quickly.

“We realized early on that if we had return loads to get trucks back to shipping points, we could control the trucks,” said Sid Verdoorn, chairman of the board of C.H. Robinson Worldwide Inc., Eden Prairie, Minn. “It allowed carriers to rely on Robinson Co. They knew they’d have revenue going both ways.”

Verdoorn, 67, started at Robinson as a produce broker in 1963 when up to 75% of the company’s produce was being shipped by rail.

“It wasn’t as fresh, and it didn’t go to your distribution center,” he said. “As trucks became more involved in the process, it was the interstate highways that allowed it to happen.”

Verdoorn said customers benefited because they didn’t have to order as much or as often. They received a more consistent product and had more flexibility and better inventory control.

Smaller companies, he said, couldn’t afford to purchase entire rail cars of product, nor did they have the space to store it.

“Trucks gave us the capability of multiple pickups where we could put various products on one truck,” he said. “When I was doing mixed veg in Minnesota, you’d have 25 products on one truck. In a rail car, that wasn’t feasible.”

GRUELING FUELING

Though alternative fuels are being studied, shippers are looking for immediate relief from high prices. Oil prices have soared to record prices over $76 a barrel, $3-a-gallon fuel has become common place and drivers are in short supply.

If those trends continue, trucking could lose some of its long-held advantage over rail. Sykes said Southwest and West Coast shippers were “revisiting the rail angle.”

“We consider any transportation we have to get product to the customer,” Robinson said. “With fuel prices going up, I wouldn’t be surprised if you see piggy back service getting more plentiful than it is now. I see it coming back in a strong way.”

Verdoorn also said rail could reemerge, but that options were limited.

“There are many more towns that don’t have good rail service than those that do,” he said. “The major hubs like Chicago have good rail service, but in other places it’s questionable.”

“Railroad is competition,” Lund said, “but at the end of the day if you got it, a truck brought it.”

Revival weighed for rail but trusty trucks prevail
The interstate system, which was started in 1956 and complete in 1991, turns 50 this year. The 46,837-mile network did more than make roads straighter and wider. It dramatically altered the produce and transportation industries.