Union Pacific to Procure 1,000 Refrigerated Boxcars

Published online: Sep 10, 2018 Articles
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Source: The Produce News

Addressing attendees at a transportation workshop during the Idaho Grower Shipper Association’s 90th annual convention in Sun Valley, Idaho, Aug. 29, Brad Thrasher, vice president and general manager agricultural products marketing for Union Pacific Railroad, announced that Union Pacific will be acquiring 1,000 new high-tech refrigerated boxcars and has authorization to increase that number to 1,600 if needed. At a cost of $250,000 each, the purchase will constitute the largest equipment acquisition in company history.

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Brad Thrasher of UP; Brian Hart of Super T Transport and Lauren Singh of C.H. Robinson were among the panelists in the transportation session at the IGSA convention.

From the perspective of the Idaho potato industry, which has historically relied heavily on railroad transportation for shipments destined to major markets such as Chicago or the Northeast, the additional reefers are greatly needed. Union Pacific’s existing fleet of reefers is aging, antiquated, in decline and woefully inadequate to meet existing demand, a situation that has caused deep concern for shippers in Idaho. Existing cars are all at least 40 years old, and Idaho potato production has increased dramatically since they were placed in service.

Thrasher was one of seven panelists participating in the workshop that addressed some of the major transportation challenges faced by the Idaho potato industry. The panel was moderated by Derek Peterson of Wilcox Fresh, who is a member of the IGSA board of directors.

Other panelists were Lauren Singh of C.H. Robinson, Stefan Loeb of Watco Cos., Alan Julian of Norfolk Southern Corp., Allan Deasy of CSX and John Murray of Florida East Coast Railway.

While the UP’s plans to beef up its fleet of reefers was great news for the industry, the trucking side of the transportation equation is facing a serious crisis. Simply put, “I can’t get drivers,” said Hart. It is a serious problem throughout the industry—a critical shortage that is becoming more so. Nationwide, the trucking industry is 50,000 drivers short, Hart said. Aging is a big factor, as the average age of long-haul truck drivers is now 65 and the industry is not being successful in either attracting or retaining younger drivers.

One reason for the decline is that the current robust economy has given more attractive options to younger drivers or to younger workers who might otherwise have contemplated long-haul trucking. Better-paying jobs in construction or in the oil fields, for example, are in demand, and those jobs often offer workers the advantage of going home to their families at night rather than being on the road for a week or more at a stretch.

Being a trucker was once considered cool, but that is no longer the case, Hart observed.

The panelists discussed at length ways to make truck driving a more attractive option for new drivers as well as ways to reduce turnover. Among the suggestions were things shippers could do to make life easier for drivers hauling fresh produce, such as treating the drivers with more respect, providing clean, comfortable facilities for them while they are waiting to be loaded or unloaded, reducing wait times, compensating them for long waits and providing adequate truck parking.

Lowering the age for interstate commercial truck drivers to 18 would also help, Hart said. It is currently 21 in most states. The trucking industry has been working for that change, but has met with resistance from lawmakers who believe 18-year-olds aren’t mature enough or responsible enough for the job, but Hart said that while that may be true of some 18-year-olds, it is not true of all, and he believes the trucking companies are better qualified to determine who is qualified than are the lawmakers. It’s something trucking companies are very good at, he said.

Long-haul truck driving may also be more attractive to 18-year-olds who may not yet have families and may enjoy the opportunity to get around the country.

Another workshop session featured Ron Pelger, a long-time produce consultant doing business as RonProCon. Pelger, who was previously a retail produce director, talked to produce company sales representatives about how to be successful in selling to retail — specifically, how to get a foot in the door, how to get in touch with buyers, how to reach produce directors who are the real decision makers, and how to their company’s products into the store.

Pelger urged the sales reps to be sellers, not just order takers, to do their homework, sell a plan, not a product, and to give customers ideas to solve problems and generate profits. He emphasized the importance of persistence, of following up and of meeting with customers face-to-face at least once a year, not just calling them on the phone. He held up the field reps of the Idaho Potato Commission as good examples who “always came giving good ideas” and “always did a great job for us” when he was in the retail sector.

When retailers demand lower prices, Pelger said, sales reps need to know when to hold their ground.

On the retail side, he stressed the importance of massive produce displays which he referred to as “muscle merchandising.”

In the end, “it’s all about profitability,” he said.

In other sessions, Susan Leaman, vice president of iDecisionSciences LLC spoke on managing food-safety risks, and University of Idaho researchers Nora Olsen and Mike Thornton talked about the studies that are under way to prevent quality loss in potatoes during harvest, storage, packing and shipping.