First cherries en route on new railcars

QUINCY -- A train with refrigerated railcars is carrying its first load of Washington cherries to Chicago this summer, thanks to a new central Washington rail facility built to provide faster delivery of perishable products to the Midwest.

Backers say the new rail service can cover 2,000 miles in less than four days, far faster and cheaper than standard truck service and reducing the carbon footprint of each container shipped by 50 percent.

State, federal and local dollars paid for the roughly $6 million facility, which has the capacity to ship 200 containers per month. First shipments, largely apples, started in April, and the first containers of cherries were shipped last week.

Gov. Chris Gregoire visited the facility Monday.

The test run of cherries should prove the service is ideal for shipping the perishable products to Chicago quickly and efficiently, said Steven Lawson of Cold Train Inc., which operates the service under its parent company, Rail Logistics.

Temperatures in the refrigerated rail cars can be controlled remotely and tracked through shipment.

Empty railcars in Chicago are returning mostly with meat -- chicken, beef and pork -- intended for export to the Far East.

Columbia Colstor Inc., one of the largest cold storage companies in the country, built a 220,000 square foot facility next to the rail yard for $25 million. The company stores meat from the Midwest there upon arrival, then ships it with frozen french fries from central Washington's Columbia River basin for export.

The company already handles 900 million pounds of potatoes each year, all for export to China, Japan, Korea and Taiwan.

Local officials now are pushing for improved rail service west to Seattle to export local products more quickly to the Far East.

Central Washington growers and packers have long complained about a shortage of rail service west, because trains arrive to the area already full and must shorten to go through the Cascades.

"If you can generate the businesses to support it, it will happen," said Patric F. Connelly, Port of Quincy commissioner. "But this is a huge step."