After crossing the Cascade Mountains, the Seattle-Chicago train can pick up another 15 rail cars in Quincy to carry Washington produce to Chicago.
A new direct rail service between central Washington and Chicago gives tree fruit shippers a transportation option that is more efficient, less expensive, and greener than trucking, says Charlie Pomianek, manager of the Wenatchee Valley Traffic Association.
Rail Logistics, LC, of Overland Park, Kansas, began the door-to-door service in April. It is intermodal, which means that once the produce has been loaded into the refrigerated container at the warehouse, it is not rehandled until it reaches the customer.
Most Washington state fruit is trucked to its destination, but some shippers from both the Wenatchee and Yakima districts are already using the rail service and Pomianek expects interest to build significantly.
Rail Logistics negotiated with the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad to have the nonstop daily train between Seattle and Chicago stop in Quincy to pick up additional rail cars. Coming from Seattle, the train is at its load capacity for crossing the Cascade Mountains.
However, when it reaches Quincy, on the eastern side of the mountain range, it can add up to 15 more rail cars, each carrying two containers, according to Steve Lawson, Rail Logistics’s vice president for intermodal.
Rail Logistics will pick up produce within a 200-mile radius of Quincy. Beyond that distance, it is not cost effective. The company delivers an empty refrigerated container on a chassis to the shipper. The shipper loads the fruit at the warehouse, and the sealed container is trucked to Quincy where it is removed from the chassis and put on the train. The 2,000-mile journey to Chicago takes four or five days, about the same amount of time it takes by truck.
In Chicago, the containers are put on chassis and delivered, unopened, to the customers. Lawson said Rail Logistics, which calls this the “Pacific Northwest-Chicagoland Intermodal Service,” can deliver containers up to 350 miles away in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin—a region with around 60 million people, or about a fifth of the entire U.S. population.
Pomianek said the service is more labor and fuel efficient than trucking produce the whole way, and generates fewer carbon emissions. “It’s another alternative. It adds competition. On top of everything else, this is a real efficient way of moving product, and it’s greener.”
Both shippers and receivers are trying to cultivate a more environmentally friendly image, he said, though that’s probably not the main reason for shipping by rail. “If I can move product more efficiently for less money, that’s the big thing. Now, I get these other benefits, it really helps push it over to make it happen. Change is slow, but I think once it gets up and running, there’s going to be a lot of demand for this.”
Rail Logistics has 71 containers, but plans to build another 280 containers as business develops. It is also transporting other products, such as potatoes, onions, and frozen vegetables. The service runs Monday through Friday but could go six days a week if there is sufficient demand.
If the venture is successful, the company would like to add a second leg, so that containers could continue from Chicago to the Southeast, Lawson said.
Another company, Railex, runs a train service carrying fresh produce between Wallula, near the Tri-Cities in south central Washington, and New York. Pomianek said it has been very successful, though it operates differently from Rail Logistics. Goods are transported by truck to the Railex cold storage facility in Wallula, where they are unloaded from the trucks and reloaded onto rail cars. Railex has another cold storage facility at the receiving end in New York. Some Washington apple shippers have used that service to export fruit to Europe or Brazil via the East Coast, Pomianek said.