This fall, Washington and Oregon growers will be able rush their fresh produce from Wallula, Washington, to East Coast markets in about five days via what the Port of Walla Walla says is the West Coast’s first express, dedicated produce rail service.
The weekly service is being launched through an agreement between Union Pacific, Florida-based CSX Transportation, and Railex, LLC, a division of AMPCO Distribution Services, a national produce company. With help from the port, Railex is building a $20-million, refrigerated, produce distribution center in Wallula, southeast of the Tri-Cities.
Port Director Jim Kuntz said the port is raising about $7 million to cover infrastructure costs associated with the project. The state of Washington and the federal government are also helping to fund the venture, which is expected to give the region’s growers an economic boost.
The Washington State legislature in March passed two funding bills to help boost the project. Lawmakers approved $2.5 million in state transportation funds for the port to construct a loop rail line to access Railex’s distribution center, which is being built on land Railex purchased from the port.
Kuntz said the budget contains an additional $1 million to help pay for a water system, an access road, and additional property for the center.
In addition, U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) secured $1.5 million in federal transportation funds to help pay for the rail line. Kuntz said the port also has secured a $400,000 economic development sales-tax grant from Walla Walla County and $750,000 from the state Community Economic Revitalization Board.
The weekly 55-car train will consist of 64-foot, refrigerated boxcars that can carry as much as four truckloads of produce each, for a total capacity of about 8 million pounds. Union Pacific is guaranteeing delivery of the produce from Wallula to a Schenectady, New York, warehouse, in 124 hours.
The speed lies in keeping the load intact enroute, according to Union Pacific. The train will stop only in Chicago for a crew change before steaming on to New York for unloading and distribution.
Oregon and Washington apples, onions, and potatoes are expected to make up most of the cargo. Railex has been busy marketing the new service among its large Pacific Northwest growers.
Paul Esposito, vice president of logistics and strategic planning for AMPCO, which owns Railex, said growers have never had this kind of service in the past.
Kuntz said the first 55-car train is booked. “It’s hard to get produce from the West to East Coast. Conventional rail takes too long and…cars tend to get lost when they stop in rail yards.”
East Coast markets rely heavily on produce imported from Central and South America to meet consumer demand, he said. “But the imported produce that fills the void on the East Coast isn’t as high quality as West Coast produce delivered quickly from the fields.”
For more information about how the distribution center operates, visit the Web site: www.railexusa.com.