(Sept. 25) TURLOCK, Calif. — When Don Smith, owner of Turlock Fruit Co. was approached by a representative from Union Pacific Corp., Omaha, Neb., with an offer to ship honeydew melons by rail, he was a bit skeptical.

But the company talked him into sending a shipment of melons via its Express Lane service, which is offered in partnership with CSX Transportation Inc., Richmond, Va. The first shipment went in early September from Turlock to the Hunts Point Terminal Market in New York.

Since then, Smith has shipped two more loads via the rail service and said he was pleased with the results.

“Both loads got in on the seventh night,” he said. “The equipment was excellent equipment. The whole future of this thing lies in what kind of equipment they’ve got.”

Ray Schloss, merchandise account manager for CSX, said the Express Lane service is now operating in refurbished trains with new cooling units from Thermo King.

“As long as they stay in decent equipment we’re fine,” he said. “Union Pacific is finally getting a new fleet. For fresh produce, all we’ve had is the same old cars that have been running since the 1970s. So the new fleet is something that’s good to see happening.”

Schloss was there when the first load arrived and reported that it was in excellent condition upon arrival. Schloss said he is seeing a bigger demand for rail these days, with business being up about 60% from what it was just a few years ago and not just for melons.

“We’re starting to move a lot of pears as well,” he said. “We’re seeing about one or two loads per week of pears.”

With Express Lane, loads are shipped from California by way of Albany, N.Y. There they are split up and go to Boston, New York or New Jersey. Schloss said the average delivery time from coast to coast is about eight days.

For his part, Smith said he will continue to use rail in the future, though it will never take the place of shipping by truck.

“We’ll continue it on a limited basis,” he said. “It’s not a major portion by any stretch, but on a limited basis (rail) has certain benefits.”