(June 28) The Railex transloading facility in Wallula, Wash., won’t be finished until late July, but Dale Lathim has toured it twice.

“It’s like stepping into the future,” said Lathim, executive director of Potato Growers of Washington, Othello. “It’s state-of-the-art.”

Railex, a division of Ampco Distribution Services, Riverhead, N.Y., plans to use the facility, where cargo is transferred among railcars and tractor trailers, to launch a coast-to-coast, nonstop rail line dedicated to perishables in October. The service — linking the transloading facility in Wallula with a new one in Rotterdam, N.Y. — could be a boon to shippers in the transport-deprived Northwest.

“It’s got a whole bunch of advantages,” said Dave Carlson, president of the Washington Apple Commission, Wenatchee. “We have to go back to rail in some form on the long hauls because of the energy issue and the shortage of truck drivers.”

Carlson said shippers had become wary of rail over the years because of lost, late or damaged loads but that Railex hopes to solve those problems with its express route. The 55-car train stays intact, eliminating the shifting and damage that can be caused by cars being coupled and uncoupled.

Railex general manager Paul Esposito said the cross-county ride likely will take five days — similar to the time trucking takes and half the time of conventional rail. He declined to discuss rates but said the service would cost less than trucking.

There already has been plenty of industry buzz about Railex, which has been on the drawing board for three years, but less is known about the facilities themselves.

Both facilities are about 200,000 square feet and have at least 2 miles of enclosed, refrigerated railroad track. Trains pull into the building — 19 at a time in Washington and 14 at a time in New York — meaning the cold chain is never broken.

In Wallula, the train rolls through the back side of the building while up to 38 trucks can dock at sealed doors in front. In between are six cold storage rooms that can be set to different temperatures, depending on customer need.

“If you have a variety of products, it’s not an all-in-one facility,” Lathim said. “That’s a big plus because there are 128 different crops grown in the Columbia Basin. The more options we have, the better.”

Esposito said the straight-line distance between rail docks and truck docks is 86 feet.

“It’s built for speed,” he said. “I don’t know of any facility built to take on a train. It’s the first produce unit train that’s been done.”

Wallula general manager Jim Kleist, previously a plant manager for Columbia ColStor Inc., Moses Lake, Wash., said the average distance from coolers to train cars is 70 feet, and the maximum run from train to truck is 130 feet.

“It’s designed and built for transloading,” he said. “We’re building some very nice facilities, and that gives you a lot of confidence. It’s a sweet building.”