(Dec. 17, 2:05 p.m.) DELANO, Calif. — The sprawling California facility of Railex LLC, Schenectady, N.Y., sits on the southern fringe of Delano, more than 3,000 miles from the firm’s Rotterdam, N.Y. terminal.

It signals the first step in a new rail approach designed to put more fresh California fruits and vegetables in East Coast kitchens. Railex guarantees the weekly 55-car trains will make the cross-country trip in five days. The first few Delano departures have done better than promised.

“Deliveries in the East have been stellar. We’ve been running 22 hours ahead of schedule,” said Paul Esposito, vice president of sales for the northeast division and corporate logistics for Railex.

With the paint on the 225,000-square-foot complex barely dry, the 120-member staff assembled by general manager Gary Pena inspects, consolidates and loads the produce-laden pallets in veteran fashion. Many of them are farm workers with many years of fresh produce experience, he said.

“We hope to whittle down that time in Delano and to become not only accepted, but a method of transportation that a grower-shipper thinks about right away,” he said.

To make certain the cold chain is unbroken, temperature readings are taken from three locations in a load before the produce comes off the trucks, Pena said. From that point, every pallet is tracked via radio frequency identification devices, he said.

“We have 12 separate computer-controlled temperature zones, and two of them can be set for frozen foods,” Pena said.

The produce is fed to those zones from 40 truck receiving docks on the east side of the building, he said, with 14 more docks available when the volume demands. In the cold zones, a crew of three inspectors checks samples from 25% of the pallets of each load, Pena said, to ensure quality and grade.

The west side of the building features a quarter-mile long, refrigerated rail dock that can load 19 railcars simultaneously. Leased locomotives deliver the 64-foot-long refrigerated railcars from the main Union Pacific Railroad line along more than five miles of track the company built to serve the Delano operation.

Every week, loads from more than 200 trucks are consolidated and commodities are matched to temperature level requirements, Pena said. To guarantee quality upon arrival in New York, each railcar contains up to $5,000 in air bags, slip sheets and foam padding to protect the load, he said.

“We pack four truckloads into each of these railcars,” Pena said.

The Railex service is not limited to pre-packed cartons of produce. Bins of produce, wood and plastic are loaded onto the railcars for packing upon arrival in New York.

“We have a 60,000-square-foot re-grading and repacking facility in Rotterdam,” said Andy Pollak, Railex chief executive officer. “We repack potatoes, apples, citrus — just about everything.”

The bins are returned on the next west-bound trip to Delano, Pena said, where the grower-shippers can retrieve them.

The flexibility of the Railex service makes the company unique, Esposito said.

“We’re a totally different type of platform,” he said. “We’re offering the California produce industry consolidation and de-consolidation 3,000 miles apart on an expedited rail transit.”

Grower-shippers enjoy the flexibility of using Railex like a truck, Exposito said, and the flexibility comes with positioning inventory to the east coast.

An advantage of Railex, Pena said, is that small grower-shippers are welcome, and the service opens new East Coast markets to the small grower.

“They don’t have to deliver a full truck to Delano,” he said. “We can take as few as four pallets.”

The company’s partners, Union Pacific Railroad, Omaha, Neb., and CSX Transportation Inc., Jacksonville, Fla., continuously monitor temperatures in the railcars, Esposito said.

“Each car has a GPS sensor in the refrigeration unit and 32 alarm points,” he said.

For added scrutiny, Railex monitors each railcar six times a day for temperature, discharge air and location, he said.

Yet another partner, Midland Carriers, Edmond, Okla., is able to diagnose any mechanical problem as the train is traveling east, Esposito said. If a problem is discovered, it is dealt with at the next crew change, he said.

“As the unit approaches the yard, we have it diagnosed and have the parts there to repair the unit,” Esposito said. “The unit is repaired as the crew change is happening. The unit does not come off the car. Everything is repaired right then and there.”

The train leaves every Friday morning. Since the service started in early October, loads have included table grapes, stone fruit, citrus and a variety of vegetables, including iced broccoli, Pena said.

With one train leaving each week, the Delano staff works five days a week, Pena said.

“We would like to be within six months running two trains a week out of Delano,” Esposito said. “We know the product is there, we know the inventory is there and we know the need is there.”

The company’s long-range plan is even more optimistic.

“Our goal is to run five trains a week from Delano to New York,” Pollak said.

California grower-shippers embracing Railex
Gary Pena, general manager of the new Delano, Calif., Railex LLC facility, checks the packing of a railcar destined for the company’s Rotterdam, N.Y. terminal. “We are able to pack four truckloads of produce in each of the train’s 55 railcars,” Pena says.