It could be shades of déjà vu for the produce transportation industry if some intermodal carriers have their way.
Before the 1950s, most produce was transported by rail, said Tom Finkbiner, chief executive officer for Tiger Cool Express LLC, Overland Park, Kan.
Boxes were loaded onto flatcars, and stations were set up every 250 miles or so where containers would be topped off with ice. But that all changed when the Interstate Highway System was built and refrigerated trailers were refined.
“(Produce) was all on the railroads until that time,” he said. “Then all of it left the railroads.”
But some believe that for a number of reasons, including skyrocketing costs, environmental concerns, driver shortages and tight fuel supplies, the time is right for a return to rail — intermodal rail service, in particular.
“There’s a confluence of events here that appears to make it practical,” Finkbiner said.
“The old model is broken,” he said. “Another model needs to take its place. We’re hoping this is the model.”
Produce is a multibillion-dollar transportation market, he said, that in many cases can be best served through intermodal systems that use trucks to deliver specially designed containers to trains that transport them to a destination. Then trucks pick up the containers and deliver them to their final stop.
“Intermodal is most competitive in the long haul,” Finkbiner said. “It saves the most money and is the most fuel-efficient.”
The intermodal process still uses trucks to haul produce, but via short hauls rather than long hauls.
Serving the industry efficiently as the growing season shifts from California to Texas to Florida and back again can be a challenge for the mostly small, independent carriers that haul produce, he said.
“A driver from Southern California doesn’t want to go to Pharr, Texas, to haul vegetables to and from Chicago,” he said.
“In the intermodal business, we don’t depend on drivers, we depend on equipment — containers.”
It’s easy to move a container from the California-to-Chicago lane to the McAllen, Texas, area, he said.
Tiger Cool Express serves the Midwest and Northeast.
“We’re trying to follow the seasons,” Finkbiner said.
From May to October, the company concentrates on Southern California; from October to December the focus is on Mexico; and in January to April, the firm emphasizes the south Florida area.