Distribution of California fresh produce is expected to have a new rail option to the Midwest when the TransCold Express – offered by McKay TransCold through an agreement with BNSF Railway – launches in late April or early May.

For pickup and delivery, the refrigerated service will be available to cities within 400 to 500 miles of the hubs on either end — Selma, Calif., and Wilmington, Ill.

“We can bring something from Green Bay, Wis., to Los Angeles for less than a truck would cost,” said Jason Spafford, vice president of business development at Edina, Minn.-based McKay TransCold. “On the California end, we can cover the entire Central Valley and even Los Angeles or San Francisco, and ship that to Green Bay or Indianapolis.”

Carrots, citrus and stone fruit are among the California crops McKay plans to haul. Butter, cheese and even wine may be on board as well. Product shipping from the Midwest will include frozen foods, eggs and other consumer products. Shippers won’t be required to fill a boxcar; truckload and less-than-truckload amounts will be accepted.

“Generally we’re going to stay with the more durable commodities,” Spafford said. “Strawberries and leaf lettuce probably won’t work. But iceberg lettuce is more solid and may work with foodservice companies.”

The plan is to start the express train with 30 boxcars and ramp up to 50 — the equivalent of 200 truck loads — over six months.

“Our goal is to get to two 50-car trains in a year, going each direction,” Spafford said. “Each will leave Wednesday and land 96 hours later on Sunday evening.”

“Handling freight at this velocity and volume is something new,” he said.

McKay TransCold, which will staff the rail hubs, is luring potential customers with the prospect of savings over truck transport.

“We understood going in that people aren’t going to switch what they’re doing now for no good reason,” Spafford said. “So we’ve been saying 8% to 15% less, dependent upon lane and commodity. They could see more savings if they are able to use our freight forwarding location or distribution center. A produce company could put up their own line and do packaging on site.”

The TransCold Express will use a patent pending in-car racking system that can double stack pallets.

“There’s no shifting over the long haul to the Midwest,” Spafford said.

McKay TransCold will rely on existing cold storage in Selma. The company has vendor relationships in both California and Illinois.