Iowa Public Television


Update: Produce Unit Train Links West Coast Farmers with East Coast Food Distributors Part 2

posted on February 11, 2010

Last week, Market to Market rode the rails aboard the "Fresh Express"… a unique train route connecting growers and consumers from coast to coast.

Railex, the transportation company that operates the "Fresh Express", runs on exclusive routes contracted with the Union Pacific and CSX railways.

As the nation's first and only nonstop rail system for perishables, Railex guarantees cross-country transit in five days or less. While the time-sensitive cargo is travelling across the country, the temperature inside each 64-foot railcar is tracked by GPS and can be remotely adjusted to each customer's unique specifications.

Producer Laurel Bower Burgmaier followed one of the "Fresh Express" trains to the end of the line in New York and filed this report.

Bill Collins, Railex, LLC: "Railex is a transportation platform primarily for produce coming cross country in conjunction with UP and CSX. They're the two primary rail carriers. They connect to our facilities in Washington and California. They provide a z rated train that gets across country with no stops for switching or yard work."

Once the train, known as the "Fresh Express," has reached its destination in New York, the railcars are prepared for unloading within the confines of the Railex Distribution Center so the cold chain is not broken. Produce is unloaded swiftly to get the merchandise to market or, if needed, to store products at the optimal temperature in one of several, monitored zoned coolers allowing customers to manage their inventory with overnight delivery.

Bill Collins, Railex, LLC: "Our facility here is 225,000 square feet. The facility is built lengthwise so that we can accommodate receiving more cars. The train arrives in the back; we flow through the building out to the truck docks in the front. We can basically crash the train and bring it all in at one time. We unload it without stopping from front to back 55 cars in four waves of fourteen at a time. The building is set up as a mirror image of itself so that you never have to go further than the center of the building. It's a much more efficient way to unload the railcars."

In just four years, Railex has increased from one train leaving Washington to New York, to four trains leaving weekly -two trains from Washington and two trains from its California facility which began operating last year. The five-day service 55-car refrigerated unit trains have the capacity to transport the equivalent of 200 trucks of refrigerated merchandise every week, both ways –that's 600 truckloads combined. Railex officials say that while most of their clients are produce related; they have the capability to work with a variety of other goods including liquor and frozen foods.

Neil Golub, Price Chopper Supermarkets: "This company was founded in 1932 by my dad and my uncle, and it has grown very dramatically over the past 20 years. We now have 116 stores located in six northeast states. We have to recognize that during the seasons the growing markets change around the country. During the winter weather which normally comes in here about the beginning of October, you'd got to really make sure that you have a full line of products and so during that time of year, we bring a tremendous amount of things cross-country. You really have to shop the entire country so the American consumer really has the opportunity to shop for a full variety year round."

One of the biggest benefits of using the Railex train is the ability for growers, shippers and distributors to position their inventory. And that offers some distinct advantages over other modes of transport.

Bill Collins, Railex, LLC: "They can customize their outbound order and they have the inventory option here as well. Their rate includes five to seven days of free storage here as well. As they await market changes or if they want to get ahead of a market or you know market you know suddenly shifts and they need an item or they're out. We have the same performance as a truck, perhaps a little better. They have all these options available they wouldn't have with just a standard truck. It's very difficult to track 35/40/50/100 trucks if you're an inbound logistics person for a chain store, whereas the Railex train arrives in one place. We know exactly where everything is. They have insight into their inventory when it's going to get here, where it is in the building, and how they can build it on the way out."

Neil Golub, Price Chopper Supermarkets: "Sometimes you don't have a full railcar of lettuce or potatoes or onions or peaches. So what that does is opens the door for what we call a mixed load. In one railcar we may have broccoli, celery, carrots, potatoes, onions –a whole variety of things. And, a mix car sometimes can be very beneficial to us. Being able to do that is beneficial because instead of having four trailers on the road coming from different places, you have one railcar that's got it all in there."

With volatile fuel prices and global climate change on everyone's mind, using a greener method of transportation is important. According to Railex, railroads are the most fuel-efficient form of ground transportation with the three "Fresh Express" trains saving more than 15 ½ million gallons of fuel per year. Railex adds railroads are three times more fuel efficient than other modes of ground transportation, while generating three times less emissions.

Neil Golub, Price Choppers Supermarkets: "They should be able to get their train here within five days. Now that's very close to the time it would take a truck. But, if you look at the big picture and the amount of fuel that's wasted and the amount of the environmental problems as that results from spewing fumes into the air, this certainly is a real benefit from doing that."

Along with Union Pacific and CSX railroads, Railex officials say they take the best attributes of truck, rail and warehousing and tailor them to meet customer needs.

Bill Collins, Railex, LLC: "We guarantee that their product is held without breaking the cold chain from one end to the other in a very rapid fashion. And, they can get it to market without breaking that cold chain anywhere and that's unusual in the rail service because typically rail received outdoors and the cold chain is broken. Here, we're different. It never leaves a cold chain. You know it's much better for arrival product particularly in produce."

Neil Golub, Price Choppers Supermarkets: "If the temperature goes up on produce that's not good. If it goes down and gets too cold, that's not good either. It has to be at a level that protects the product and keeps it at its peak condition during the entire trip. That's certainly going to be a real benefit."

In just four years, Railex has increased from one produce unit train to four. While most of the products still move West to East, more and more goods now travel East to West opening up new opportunities for growers, shippers and distributors on both coasts. And Railex officials say they are excited about keeping perishable products on the right track in the future.

Bill Collins, Railex, LLC: "We'll be expanding this facility at some point in the future a little bit larger and possibly be able to accommodate another train as well. We're looking to get one in every other day."

For Market to Market, I'm Laurel Bower Burgmiaer.



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