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Trains boot Washington fruit crops to carry more coal, oil

A major shipper of state crops gives up on its service to Midwest, East Coast, blaming delays caused by oil and coal trains.
Intermodal shipping allows the movement of containers from truck to rail, or vice versa.

Intermodal shipping allows the movement of containers from truck to rail, or vice versa. Port of Quincy

No sign that apples will be left to rot on trees yet but Washington fruit crops are facing shipping challenges.

No sign that apples will be left to rot on trees yet but Washington fruit crops are facing shipping challenges. Photo: Flickr user plousia

Cold Train has stopped its service carrying agricultural goods from the Port of Quincy to the Midwest and East Coast.

Cold Train has stopped its service carrying agricultural goods from the Port of Quincy to the Midwest and East Coast. Port of Quincy

One of the major shippers for Washington fruits and field crops has given up on express shipments to the Midwest and East Coast, blaming delays on the BNSF Railways’ increased shipment of coal and oil.

Growers of Washington apples and other major crops have already been turning to long-haul trucking, as BNSF oil and coal train traffic began to take up an increasing share of overall traffic. An April scheduling decision by BNSF doubled the three-day delivery time from Quincy in Central Washington to Chicago to six days, company officials said. At six days, rail shipments are not competitive with long-haul trucks, which can deliver in three days.

Cold Train Express, operating out of the Port of Quincy, was providing service six days a week to 24 states by the end of 2013, a Cold Train statement said Thursday. The service was shipping nearly 1,000 containers a month when scheduling problems began in November. BNSF’s on-time percentage dropped from 90 per cent to 5 percent, Cold Train said.

“Because of BNSF’s scheduling issues from November of 2013 until present, Cold Train lost most of its fresh produce business, including apples, onions, pears, potatoes, carrots and cherries, which was more than 70 percent of the company’s business,” the company said.

For fruit growers, the change underlines the increasing challenges of getting their products to market in top shape, quickly and at reasonable prices. 

Central Washington growers had been attempting to salvage rail shipments of their products since the April BNSF scheduling decision. Kirk B. Mayer, manager of the Washington Growers Clearing House, said in July that the BNSF’s increased delivery time would “make it next to impossible for a perishable crop, such as tree fruit, to use rail service.”

It's not just fruit and vegetable growers who are experiencing frustrations. The Seattle Times reported recently that Eastern Washington grain growers are already worrying about both the cost and availability of rail shipping to get their products to market. The nonprofit Sightline organization, which follows environmental and economic issues, has warned for years about problems for the Northwest economy from railroads' increasing coal and oil traffic, including congestion at railroad crossings and difficulties for other shippers trying to get their goods to market.

Apple growers and others have increasingly turned to trucks.

Long-haul trucks have been in short supply in recent years, however, due to driver retirements and other causes. The trucker shortage has driven shippers to intermodal: A single container can be used on either a truck or a rail car, allowing, for instance, a truck to deliver a container of fruit a short distance to a rail shipper who can lift it onto a rail car. And a train can then take the fruit to a major market like Chicago. But intermodal terminals such as the Port of Quincy, which is about halfway between Moses Lake and Wenatchee, are now finding they cannot compete on time-sensitive goods that depend on long-distance rail transport.

Cold Train intermodal trains shipped some 4,000 containers of tree fruit in 2013, the equivalent of 5,000 truckloads, according to the Wenatchee Valley Traffic Association, a representative of fruit growers. Removal of the intermodal option of Cold Train would appear to put 5,000 more loaded trucks on the road annually.

Ironically, at least some of the timetable issues are due to BNSF’s efforts to improve its service, including investment of $235 million in track improvements in Washington that, while they may be beneficial later, worsen the immediate challenges. Railway Age, an industry observer, notes that the impacts have already been noted in rescheduling of Amtrak service on some rail routes, complaints from grain shippers and now intermodal services. BNSF didn't return a call for comment Thursday.

Cold Train began service at the Port of Quincy in 2010. Rail Logistics opened the intermodal terminal in partnership with the Port and BNSF. In March 2014, the operation was sold to Federated Railways Inc., a Michigan firm. At the time, the Port said the new owner would expand its 400-rail car fleet to 1,000 over the next five years.

In May, the Port applied for a $16.2 million grant to expand tracks for Cold Train future growth. A Cold Train spokesmen said the company has no plans to restore the service and that it should be considered terminated at this time.

Floyd J. McKay, professor of journalism emeritus at Western Washington University, was a print and broadcast journalist in Oregon for three decades. Recipient of a DuPont-Columbia Broadcast Award for documentaries, and a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard, he is also a historian and holds a Ph.D. from the University of Washington. He resides in Bellingham and can be reached at floydmckay@comcast.net.


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Comments:

Posted Fri, Aug 8, 8:47 a.m. Inappropriate

The coal and oil simply cannot be shipped by trucks; the produce can.

kieth

Posted Fri, Aug 8, 9:25 a.m. Inappropriate

And by the way, those trucks need to run on diesel -- know where that comes from?

Also, to the headline writer -- your bias is showing. Nothing in the article says the railroad "boot(s) Washington fruit crops." There are delays and longer shipping times due to increased traffic and track improvements, but your headline make it sound like the railroad is kicking the produce entirely off the rails.

Posted Fri, Aug 8, 6:59 p.m. Inappropriate

Yes... and the trains tout their ability to haul a ton of freight "over 400 miles on a gallon of fuel"... but, since there's No use for the 'empties' on this end, all those tankers and gondolas have to run back EMPTY... instead of hauling freight in Both directions. Maybe it's time to leave the coal, at least, in the ground... instead of fueling those Asian factories where our jobs went; and haul our fruit to market, instead.
The beauty of multi-modal could lead to something like a shallow coal train that could run back with a container or two on it... but, like expanded passenger service, that ain't likely. ^..^

herbert

Posted Sat, Aug 9, 9:52 a.m. Inappropriate

Attach export duties to coal and oil that counteracts their price advantage over cold shipment of fruit and vegetables. Thus, export of coal and oil will be allowed, but limited. The flow of crops to market will continue, holding down food prices.

The build-out of high-speed rail lines could allow that infrastructure to be used for both passenger rail and time-sensitive shipments, including cold shipment of fruit and vegetables.

Posted Sat, Aug 9, 3:21 p.m. Inappropriate

It seems like this is an opportunity for Uncle Pete (the Union Pacific). It doesn't serve Quincy but it does serve Pasco which isn't all that far (101 miles according to Google Maps) and has a major terminal just a little farther away at Hinkle, another 39 miles.

At this time the UP line over the Blue Mountains is not choked with coal trains. Surely it could handle those 1000 containers per month expeditiously. Couldn't Cold Train Express load the containers in Quincy and dray them to Pasco or Hinkle? Seems like it would still be cheaper than highway all the way.

Anandakos

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