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Trains boot Washington fruit crops to carry more coal, oil

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

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