To find out how onion and potato markets are doing, Steve Lawson just has to look at the orders for his Cold Train Express.

“Last year, we moved a lot more onions because the potato business was in the tank,” said Lawson, president of Overland Park, Kan.-based Rail Logistics, which launched the Cold Train refrigerated intermodal service for fresh and frozen produce in 2010 with Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway and the port of Quincy, Wash.

Apples remain Cold Train’s single biggest fresh commodity out of Washington, Lawson said, but potato and onion grower-shippers make up more than a quarter of business.

“It’s almost year round,” he said, “and the potato and onion business will be important to us as we continue to add capacity.”

Lawson said supply and demand often dictate which mode of transport shippers choose.

In a volatile market, shippers are willing to pay more to get their products to market quickly, he said.

If pricing is low or there’s an oversupply, they may choose a cheaper refrigerated box car that takes two to three times longer to reach its destination.

“I think our service has become really popular with onion and potato growers because we fall in between traditional railcar business and an over-the-road truck,” he said.

“On the pricing scale, we tend to be more in the middle.”

In the past 12 months, Cold Train has increased its fleet to more than 400 refrigerated containers, with plans to add another 600 in the next three years.

By the end of 2013, Lawson expects to transport 1,000 containers from Washington state to the Midwest and up to Toronto on high-speed trains.

“Our time from Washington to Chicago is 72 hours, ramp to ramp,” he said.

Cold Train offers several advantages, including capacity and convenience, Lawson said.

The company is located in the Columbia Basin, where the crops are grown, and big customers such as Walmart appreciate the smaller carbon footprint of rail compared to trucks.

Lawson said he can handle the same volume of freight with a third of the drivers needed to run the same operation by road.

Cold Train’s biggest challenge, Lawson said, is convincing grower-shippers to give the door-to-door service a try.

“They can get a service as high quality as an over-the-road truck that has other benefits and doesn’t require them to do anything different than they’ve always done,” he said.

“When our guy leaves their dock, instead of loading up his gas tank and driving 3,000 miles across the country, he drives 20 miles up to Quincy.

"We put the container on a double-stacked refrigerated service, and it’s as fast as a truck.”