Late last month, the White House awarded $8 billion in stimulus cash to 13 high-speed rail corridors across the country. The money may seem like a windfall for the winners, but it isn't nearly enough to finish any of the major projects.
Total costs for the ambitious effort range from $60 billion to more than $100 billion over the next decade or two. With most state coffers bone-dry and federal stimulus funds phasing out it's unclear who will pay the rest.
While the high speed rail plan focuses primarily on PASSENGER transportation, FREIGHT railroad efficiency has increased dramatically over the past 25 years.
A case in point can be found on the west coast where a pair of train routes collectively known as the "Fresh Express" is connecting farmers to consumers on the east coast. Laurel Bower Burgmaier explains.
Jim Kleist, Railex, LLC: "We may be doing something that's going to change the way food is moved forever in the United States, at least part of the food."
After years of battling untimely, inconsistent long-haul methods of transport, an innovative platform called Railex was created in 2006. It remains a cutting edge way to link the needs of farmers, shippers and manufacturers with retail and food distributors.
Jim Kleist, Railex West: "Railex is a concept that our owner Andy Pollack was looking at. He purchases a lot of produce on the east coast and he has sites up and down from Florida to Maine and he was trucking or railing mainly potatoes. A lot of it came from the Columbia Basin here in Washington which is fed by the Columbia River and we have a fantastic growing season. So, how do we get this product in an alternative method besides trucking it cross country or shipping it conventional rail to the east coast? What they were looking for was a guaranteed number of days across country."
In 2005, Railex officials began negotiating with two Class 1 railroads, Union Pacific in the West and CSX Transportation in the East, to establish an exclusive service route.
Lori Loschen, Union Pacific Railroad: "We got together and developed this really as a team about how can we give customers multiple options of taking their produce where it's grown and basically shipping it across the country to a very high populated location."
This produce unit train, often referred to as the "Fresh Express," is the first and only nonstop rail unit for perishables that guarantees a maximum five-day cross-country delivery.
Jim Kleist, Railex, LLC: "You're giving people something they haven't had before and that guarantee of 55 trains leaving at this time. If Railex isn't able to get that product off and delivered in as good as condition as we received it, we won't exist. So we're able to do that."
Railex has built the infrastructure to load, ship, receive and then ship again an entire trainload of 55 refrigerated boxcars carrying perishable products in one cycle. Its state-of- the-art refrigerated distribution centers are located in some of the most fertile growing regions in the country; and are designed for product consolidation and just-in-time delivery.
Greg Barness, Agri Pack, Inc.: "The end user of our product will be restaurant chains, wholesalers who serve the food service industry as far as restaurants and processing uses. Also, retailers, you're grocery store that you buy your groceries. They're our customers for our finished product both onions and potatoes."
When products are ready for shipment, they're delivered to the west coast receiving facilities –located in Washington and California. The produce is loaded from a cooled, indoor center into sealed, state-of-the-art, 64-foot railcars. From this point, the temperature is consistently monitored by GPS tracking and adjusted to each customer's unique specifications all the way to New York, its final destination.
Jim Kleist, Railex West: "We can track these cars anywhere across the United States. We can change the temperature on these cars. We can turn them off and on –We meaning Railex and our partnership with UP. What you have is a box going across the country that you can continually take a look at. We can pull it up to see exactly where it is, what's running and what the temperature is. We know the product in it because everything is RF labeled and scanned and all that kind of stuff. It's a different level of technology than the railroad used to have. This is the newest generation."
Lori Loschen, Union Pacific Railroad: "What we guarantee Railex as well as the customers utilizing the Railex Service, we guarantee them transit. We've already had 170 plus train starts. We've been late four times and those times have been acts of God. It's been flooding, snowing or something like that. So, we have a great success record on getting this train from start to destination with in the time."
Railex differs from the conventional rail system by avoiding multiple rail yards, not having to disengage and reengage rail cars to realign routes. Thus, the products avoid shifting, bruising, temperature issues and time delays. All 55 cars of the Railex train stay intact as one unit throughout its entire route.
In addition, one railcar holds the equivalent of 3 to 4 truckloads of product. Officials claim the Railex train is capable of moving 200 truckloads weekly to major markets in the East. And it does so more efficiently and consistently than over-the-road trucks.
Greg Barness, Agri Pack: "With the trucking industry being what it is today, particularly with fuel prices, transportation is expensive, truckers have that pressure of additional expense. They're pushing freight rates and they will migrate where they can get the best price for their miles traveled. So, that makes the availability of tracks sporadic. So, Railex with their volume weekly has a stable availability of transportation from Washington into the Northeast area."
Jim Kleist, Railex, LLC: "What it's done is given the farmer who's sitting there with low margins an alternative method to get his goods to market."
With Railex, shippers get guaranteed transportation from the Pacific Northwest to the highest consumption area in the Northeast, all within a period of 124 hours or less.
Jim Kleist, Railex, LLC: "What you're doing is really taking care of moving a precious commodity. We have to feed ourselves well and compete price-wise with the rest of the world. And we produce some wonderful crops. How to get those crops from Idaho from Oregon and then all that stuff grown in California year round to the consumer at a reasonable price in a nice, safe, clean way? We think we found the answer."
Next week, we'll follow the train to the end of the line in New York, and examine other innovations ensuring the "Fresh Express" lives up to its name.
For Market to Market, I'm Laurel Bower Burgmaier.