(Jan. 4) Washington grower-shippers aren’t happy with recently proposed rail service, but the railroad isn’t turning a deaf ear to suggestions for improvement.
In a December letter, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Co., Fort Worth, Texas, told logistics provider Northwest Container Services, Portland, Ore., about its proposed refrigerated intermodal train service from central Washington to Puget Sound.
The plan, according to Pat Boss, a consultant for the Central Washington Alliance for Rail Freight Transportation, Moses Lake, was a big disappointment. BNSF promised twice-weekly service between the Washington cities of Quincy and Tacoma, but trips weren’t nearly as quick as industry members had hoped.
“They came back with an offer of four-day service from eastern to western Washington, but that four days didn’t include loading time,” Boss said.
Add in the time to load product in Quincy, then unload it onto ships on the coast, and four days turned into six to eight days, Boss said. That’s more than double the amount of time acceptable to most shippers.
“We need three days or less,” Boss said. “One day to load, one day to get it to the coast, one day to unload. If it takes more than three days, it’s just not feasible for fresh product.”
Washington grower-shippers’ need for transportation alternatives was driven home in November, Boss said, when a stretch of Interstate 90 in Washington over Snoqualmie Pass was closed for two weeks. Several thousand loads of product pass over Snoqualmie every week, he said.
In the past, many inland grower-shippers had the option of shipping product by barge down the Columbia River, Boss said. But silt build-up in recent years has made the river impassable for many barges.
Rail service has been a question mark because more and more railroads have been cashing in on hauling grain from the Midwest to the East, Boss said. Trains pass through Washington all the time — there’s just no room on them for produce.
Last fall, Boss and other industry leaders were hopeful that the situation had been resolved. On Nov. 14, BNSF and Northwest Container hammered out a gentleman’s agreement that seemed to answer the concerns of Northwest grower-shippers. But that was before Northwest Container had anything in writing.
Shippers of fresh potatoes, onions and apples would use the rail service, Boss said. Several hundred loads of fruits and vegetables would get delivered on the trains every week, he said.
Earlier in the year, Northwest Container and the rail alliance had butted heads with BNSF over whether a contract had been signed guaranteeing that the railroad would provide dedicated shipments of fresh fruits and vegetables and other products to the coast.
Northwest has invested $8 million in an intermodal facility in Quincy to process anticipated train traffic.