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Rail Cars in Short Supply for Potato, Onion Shippers

by Dave Wilkins, Idaho Staff Writer
Capital Press, August 25, 2003

Northwest potato and onion shippers are scrambling to find enough refrigerated rail cars and trucks to get their produce to market this summer.

In Washington state, which is served primarily by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad, demand for refrigerated rail cars is at a record high, produce industry officials said.

The lead time to get an empty rail car is now 10 to 14 days, said Paul Vander Stoep, a transportation consultant for the Northwest Perishables Shippers Cooperative and the Washington State Potato Commission.

Vander Stoep said he doesn’t see an easing of the rail car situation in Washington until sometime in early September.

“We’ve had only eight cars for the first 12 days of August, compared with 57 last year, which was a slow starting year, and over 100 cars in the first 12 days of August in past years,” he said.

In Idaho, which is served primarily by the Union Pacific Railroad, things haven’t been quite so bad. But there have been a couple of periods over the past year when potato shippers have had problems getting rail cars when they needed them.

“That was primarily because of the cars being off line and not being returned in a timely manner to Union Pacific,” said Dave Smith, executive director of the Idaho Grower Shippers Association. “The problem has been limited and mostly solved within a two-week period.”

Trucks have been in short supply too, both in Washington and Idaho this spring and summer. A rash of trucking company bankruptcies has reduced the supply of refrigerated trucks on the road by an estimated 10 percent, produce industry officials said.

“Things are really tight right now,” said Pat Boss, executive director of the Washington State Potato Commission. “People are having to scramble. They can’t get rail cars, and they can’t get trucks when they need them.”

With a tight supply of both rail cars and trucks, freight rates have increased.

“Rates are higher now than they are normally this time of year,” Boss said. “I’m hearing that they’re anywhere from 10 to 30 percent higher for trucks, and Burlington Northern raised its rates 10 percent in June.”

Industry officials don’t see any short-term solution to the transportation problem, but are hoping that a plan to refurbish old rail cars will help in the long run.

Legislation was passed this year establishing the Washington Produce Railcar Pool. Burlington Northern and Union Pacific have both offered old cars for the program, but funding is still needed for refurbishing.

The WSPC, which strongly supported the legislation, is now looking for financing in the form of federal grants, low-interest loans, state Department of Transportation funds and private investors.

Once it’s up and running, the program will be a fee-supported program modeled after what the wheat industry has done in Washington, Boss said. “It’s worked real well for the wheat industry, and we think it will work well for the produce industry,” he said. “By this winter or next spring I think we’ll have a pretty good program in place to deal with this transportation issue.”

Dave Wilkins is based in Twin Falls, Idaho.
Rail Cars in Short Supply for Potato, Onion Shippers
Capital Press, August 25, 2003

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