Courtesy Watco Companies
KETCHUM, Idaho — Officials with Union Pacific and collaborating railroads say they’re making major investments in a refrigerated train that expedites food shipments from the West Coast and Idaho to the East Coast.
They say the improvements should make regional rail service far more competitive with trucking, and should be especially beneficial to the Idaho potato industry.
The service originates in Wallula, Wash., passes through Oregon and makes its first stop in Pocatello, Idaho, where it picks up additional refrigerated cars filled mostly with Idaho potato products, delivered by Eastern Idaho Railroad and UP short-line rail routes. The next stop is in Chicago, where Midwest shipments are unloaded. There, the train merges with another UP refrigerated train out of Delano, Calif., and CSX Transportation rail crews take over operations. Potatoes are unloaded in Syracuse, N.Y., where they’re picked up by other rail routes, before the train reaches its final destination in Rotterdam, N.Y.
Originally called the Food Train when it was launched more than a year ago, UP re-branded the service as Cold Connect after purchasing the facilities in Delano and Wallula where the trains are loaded, as well as the Rotterdam facility, where UP rail cars supply individual trucks with a wide variety of food pallets, rather than a single commodity, for retailers’ convenience.
In addition to delivering spuds to Syracuse, San Hughes, UP’s assistant vice president of food and refrigerated products, said UP plans to start hauling Idaho potatoes to Rotterdam. The move should add further variety to inventories on the trucks and create new markets for Idaho potato shippers.
“One of the first things we wanted to do was incorporate Idaho production,” Hughes said.
Hughes said Cold Connect runs three trains per week, and the partners are investigating ways to increase to four or five trains.
Hughes explained the full trek takes eight to nine days — about four days faster than conventional rail service, in which trains are broken apart and reconfigured in rail yards along the way. The service has also proven to be more consistent, and the trains have grown in length throughout 2017. Hughes said the service has experienced 18 percent growth in Idaho potato shipments this year.
A Cold Connect partner, Watco Companies, which runs Eastern Idaho Railroad, believes it has revolutionized the design of refrigerated rail cars. Stefan Loeb, with Watco, explained the car is 72 feet long — 22 feet longer than conventional refrigerated spud cars — and was designed by the company that innovated technology used by Federal Express for loading freight on airplanes. Throughout the past year, Watco has tested a single car with rollers on the floor to easily move produce and racks that allow shippers to lock potato pallets in place, without the use of packaging material.
Loeb explained the car takes half the time to load and unload. In its eight trips, the car hasn’t allowed damage to any products, including potatoes, frozen fries, onions and butter.
Watco has leased 20 new cars that will soon be fitted with the special racks and rollers and join the fleet. The company plans to make the technology available to its partners. The special cars are now broken off Cold Connect in Chicago and hauled to other destinations by Norfolk Southern Railroad.
Brian Jones, president and CEO of Sun Valley Potatoes in Paul, Idaho, said he’s noticed a dramatic reduction in damage to produce and packaging in trial shipments with the new car.
“I think it’s a game changer,” Jones said. “Once they get the (20 new) cars in and they can get dedicated cars to us, I think it’s going to be great.”