Cold Train Tastes Success (BBQ Flavored)

By Mike Irwin. June 8, 2013, Wenatchee World

Warm day. Hot barbecue. Cold Train.

They all came together here Wednesday when the partnership behind the region’s top refrigerated rail line — the outfit that annually ships thousands of tons of central Washington fruit and produce to Midwest and East Coast markets — hosted an open house for nearly 150 growers, packers, shippers, civic leaders and other customers.

The partnership — which includes the Port of Quincy, BNSF Railways and Cold Train, a subsidiary of Kansas-based Rail Logistics — served up three hours of schmoozing, freight demonstrations and a barbecue lunch imported straight from Kansas City. It all took place at the Port’s Intermodal Terminal, now three years old and growing fast.

“The way we look at it,” said Cold Train owner Mike Lerner, “is that we’ve built a ‘pipeline’ from Quincy to Chicago and beyond for efficient transport of the fruit and produce that’s grown right here. Our task now is to let local growers know that we’re here and we’re successful.”

Cold Train chugged into existence in early 2010 with 50 refrigerated containers and shipments of 25 to 30 containers per month, all headed straight to Chicago, said Pat Boss, business consultant for the Port of Quincy and a spokesman for the rail group.

Quincy was the ideal terminal site, said Boss, because of nearby cold storage warehouses, proximity to Interstate 90, cheap hydro power for refrigeration and a central location in one of the Northwest’s most productive agricultural regions.

“Now Cold Train has 300 containers moving on six trains a week to markets in 17 states,” said Boss. Growers across North Central Washington, Yakima, Tri-Cities and Seattle ship their products by truck to Quincy, pack the products into Cold Train containers and then load them onto BNSF flatcars for the four-day trip to the Midwest.

“And pretty soon we’ll reach capacity on the equipment we have,” said Lerner. “By the end of next month, we’ll be adding another 100 cars as we expand into more East Coast markets.” Possibilities include Atlanta, Baltimore and Jacksonville, Fla.

“The key to this success is consistent service — we’re ready to go when the growers have products — and competitive shipping times and prices,” said Cold Train president Steve Lawson. “If we weren’t competitive, then Cold Train wouldn’t be in business.”

Lawson said some fruit or veggies get harvested in the morning, trucked to Quincy in the afternoon and headed east on a Cold Train only a few hours later. “We’ve got it down to a science,” he said.

Lawson, by the way, arranged for the shipment to Quincy — by Cold Train — of Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue, considered by many as the tastiest of Kansas City barbecues in a city filled with tasty barbecue. Cold Train’s headquarters are in Overland Park, Kan., a suburb of Kansas City.

Barbecue aside, shipments on Cold Train’s westbound railcars — those headed back to Quincy, Seattle and Portland from East Coast markets — have grown to about 80 percent capacity, said Boss. Cargo includes massive amounts of frozen DiGiorno pizzas, frozen juice concentrates, chilled dairy products and ingredients (spices and mixes) for food processing plants in the region.

One of Cold Train’s biggest customers for westbound shipping is Ace Hardware, which sends car-loads of hardware, building materials and equipment each month to West Coast stores. No refrigeration needed, said Boss, so shipping costs are lower than for, say, frozen chickens.

“No question that Cold Train is fulfilling expectations,” said Port of Quincy Commissioner Curt Morris. “We’re starting to get inquiries from as far away as California, from big companies with big agricultural interests just north of the Mexican border. Lots of companies are testing us out — they’re shipping a container or two just to see how if it’ll work for them.”

The challenge now to further growth, said Morris, is having enough containers and the equipment to move them. The Port provides the giant lifting machines — costing from $600,000 to $1.2 million each — that hoist containers onto flatcars.

“We’re getting to the point in this business,” he said, “where we can’t afford any equipment breakdowns and the delays that could follow — not for fresh fruit, anyway.”

Morris added, “Our success rests on serving growers the best way we can. That means being ready when their crops are ready.”

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