BNSF Buys First New Reefer Cars in 35 Years

THE BURLINGTON NORTHERN and Santa Fe Railway Company harbors no illusions about its ability to increase the total market share of perishables moving by rail significantly. The market share numbers are small compared to highway transportation and are projected to remain so. However, the railroad is confident that a fleet of new refrigerated boxcars can dramatically improve equipment utilization and drive up profits from perishable operations.

BNSF is approaching these goals from two directions. The first step was taken in June 1999 when the railroad consolidated all perishable service, both carload freight and intermodal freight, into a single management structure. “Putting all perishable operations into a single basket is just a better way to deal with customers,” says Mike Wood, BNSF's general director perishable consumer products.

The second step was an order placed in late 2000 for 700 new refrigerated boxcars. This is the first large order of reefer cars built in the past 35 years. Although BNSF intends to increase the size of its refrigerated boxcar fleet, the initial plan is to use new cars to replace the existing fleet.

Burlington Northern and Santa Fe is the product of a merger between two of the old names in American railroading, the Burlington Northern which served the Northwest and Central states and the Santa Fe, long the major rail line in the Southwest from California to Texas and California to Chicago. BNSF operates more than 33,500 miles of track in 28 states and two Canadian provinces. Company headquarters is in Fort Worth, Texas.

Growing Perishables Market

Adding new refrigerated boxcars to the fleet is recognition that the perishables market is one of the fastest growing in the transportation industry, says Steve Branscum, BNSF group vice-president, consumer products. As the first railroad to place these new cars in service, BNSF is illustrating its commitment to capturing additional perishables traffic, he says.

The market share for perishables moved by rail is roughly 7% of total perishable movement in the US. Of that percentage, less than 5% moves in carload lots, Wood says.

The total refrigerated boxcar fleet in the US is 8,000 cars. BNSF controls 25% of that capacity with a fleet of 2,000 cars. When the new car order is complete in June 2002, the railroad's share will be even larger, because the new cars are almost twice the size of cars in the existing fleet.

Rail operations differ so radically from highway trucking that questions can arise about the place of rail shipments in the perishables market. For instance, BNSF uses its existing fleet of refrigerated boxcars for only eight loads a year, Wood says. In terms that highway or intermodal carriers use, this is only four turns a year. The cycle time from the start of one load until the next load is 44 days. Transit time for a typical load is only eight to 10 days.

Extensive Inspection Delays

The rest of the time between loads is administrative. The car must be cleaned and inspected before every use. If the consignee did not clean the car properly at unloading, it must be sent to a wash facility, which can take several days. BNSF has three washing locations, and they are spread as far apart as Alabama and the Dakotas. Not only is washing time-consuming, it is expensive. The average cost of washing a refrigerated boxcar is $650, and that's just for the inside. The railroad does not wash the exterior.

Inspection and repair also consumes several days. Empty cars are sent to one of several inspection facilities operated by Western Fruit Express, a wholly owned subsidiary of BNSF. During the inspection, the car is checked thoroughly to ensure that brakes, suspension, and box integrity meet BNSF standards. The refrigeration unit is inspected as well. If any repairs are indicated by the inspection, this adds time to the period between loads.

In addition, cars are inspected every 1,000 miles while under load. This is a much more cursory inspection, essentially a walk-around to ensure that the doors are closed properly, that the unit has sufficient fuel, and that the couplers and brakes appear to be in good working order.

Consistent Transit Times

Rail transport makes sense for many commodities. The key for the railroads is to operate across certain key lanes to ensure an adequate supply of empty cars upon request. Typically, a rail customer requests a car seven days in advance of shipment. “When we supply the empty car on time, we may not be as fast as trucks, but we can be just as consistent,” Wood says. “In fact, delay in transit is almost never an issue. We run seven trains from California to Chicago a day with a 98% on-time record. We clock those trains on departure and on arrival. On time is on time, not two minutes later. However, a bad order — a car not available for loading when requested, usually because a problem was discovered during inspection — can cause a delay that averages three days.”

However, the economic justification for refrigerated boxcar freight remains compelling, Wood says. BNSF makes a profit moving only eight loads per car per year while providing a valuable service to its shippers. In a hypothetical example, a truckload of oranges from California to New York might command a freight rate of $2,800, he says. It takes several truckloads to equal a single carload. While carload freight is more expensive than a single truckload, it still costs less than moving an equal amount of freight by highway.

The cost justification will become even more pronounced when the entire order of new boxcars is in service. These are some of the largest boxcars ever built, Wood says. Existing cars in the BNSF fleet can hold the equivalent of 2.3 high-cube trailer loads. The new cars will hold as much as four trailers. Using Wood's example of oranges, a shipper paying a hypothetical $8,000 for a carload would save more than $3,000 compared to highway freight.

Rising Highway Costs

For those commodities that make sense for rail transport, the argument against trucking becomes more convincing as highway transportation faces growing challenges. Refrigerated highway carriers, like all trucking, are facing higher insurance premiums, relatively stagnant freight rates, a potential for new hours-of-service regulations, and higher fuel prices. Fuel prices, because of the refrigeration unit, are of more concern to refrigerated carriers than to dry van truckload carriers. Of the major concerns facing trucking, only the driver shortage seems to be fading at present, but that is because freight volumes are down. When freight demand rebounds, the need for more qualified drivers will become critical again.

Refrigerated boxcar freight falls into four fairly distinct categories. On the BNSF, approximately 33% of the traffic is meat, fish, or poultry — either frozen fish moving from the coasts to the interior of the country, or frozen meat and poultry from the producing areas to coastal ports for export. Another 40% is frozen vegetables, particularly frozen potatoes. Fresh produce comprises about 20% of traffic, and goods categorized as dairy and other make up the remaining 7%. This last category consists mostly of butter and cheese.

Although railroads attempt to run in freight-rich lanes, the concept of moving a boxcar directly from a receiver to a nearby shipper doesn't become reality too often. As in trucking, the most lucrative segment of any trip is thought of as the head haul. Traffic that returns a car to this highly rated freight is considered a backhaul. In general, eastbound freight, usually produce, is the head haul for BNSF. Meat and poultry meant for export from the central states provide the backhaul.

Empty Repositioning

Sometimes, the head haul pays enough and equipment availability is tight enough that empty cars are repositioned to the West from receivers in the East without taking the time for a return load. Empty repositioning is particularly common between receivers on the East Coast and westbound runs from Chicago. The distance from New York to Chicago is not far enough to justify the extra time it would take to arrange a paying load. That's only 900 miles, and lines like BNSF are not in the short haul business, Wood says.

Railroads operate in an atmosphere much more like that of common carriers than the contract world of truckload highway carriers. Rather than the negotiated rates between shippers and carriers that truckers use, railroads use public pricing for nearly all customers. In addition, nearly all service is handled on a single carload basis — a customer asks for a car and the railroad provides it. Railroads have few, if any, standing orders for refrigerated boxcar service.

Selection of carrier varies depending on the commodity involved. Produce transportation is purchased by the receiver, but the selection of a carrier is left to brokers almost 95% of the time. Manufacturers make the decision about mode of transport and carriers for frozen vegetable and dairy shipments. Meat shippers also choose carriers and pay for freight.

Bulky, Hardy Produce

Although perishables shipped by rail are a tiny fraction of the entire perishables market, some commodities show an affinity for rail transport. For instance, almost 40% of frozen French fries move by rail. While many produce shippers will not consider rail transport for any reason, shippers of bulky, hardy items such as carrots, apples, bulk potatoes, oranges and other citrus, and onions find railroads a suitable mode of transport. Consistent transit time more than ride quality is usually the deciding factor in choosing rail as a transportation mode.

These products move in bulk, often to produce terminals or to distributors who break down bulk loads and move smaller lots to grocery and foodservice distributors by truck, Wood says. With hardy produce, transit speed is not often an issue. Consistent service is, however. “These are products that tolerate the ride characteristics of boxcar shipment well,” he says. “They also hold up well to minor temperature fluctuations, which can occur in older cars. As our new cars become a large percentage of the fleet, we are confident that temperature control will become less of an issue and that we can begin moving other commodities such as broccoli. Although not certified for high speed — 90 mph on Amtrak — the new cars are designed for 70 mph. Operating in conventional freight trains, produce will have a transit time of eight days from Salinas to New York.”

Planning for the new boxcars began in 1993 when BNSF initiated a development project centered on composite car construction. At that time, they had two cars built as a test for a major brewer. A few other cars were built for private fleets, including a number that make use of cryogenic refrigeration instead of conventional mechanical units. In total, only about 50 refrigerated boxcars were built between 1965 and 2000, and some of those are not in constant use, because the price of liquid CO2 has risen sharply in the last few years.

Potential 40-Year Life

BNSF and its vendors put a great deal of planning into the new cars. Any mistake made in that planning will last a long time, because the cars have the potential to remain in service for 40 years. Obviously, refrigeration units will be replaced on a shorter cycle, probably after eight to 10 years. BNSF projects refrigeration unit utilization at 1,000 to 1,200 running hours annually.

The new cars are a joint development project that includes BNSF and its shippers, Trinity Industries and a number of its suppliers, and Carrier Transicold. Trinity Industries, the car builder, knew that conventional steel boxcars are not the best solution for holding perishables at precise temperature. However, using only composites for car construction is not seen as a workable solution either. The result is a steel car with composite components, particularly the roof.

Trinity Industries has 78 facilities and 12 million sq ft of manufacturing space in 22 states plus operations in Mexico and Brazil. Operating from its headquarters in Dallas, Texas, Trinity is a major supplier to transportation, construction, and industrial concerns. The company specializes in construction of freight and bulk rail tankcars.

Trinity uses conventional steel for the basic car structure and caps it with a composite roof developed by Molded Fiber Glass Company in Ashtabula, Ohio. This removes weight from the car while improving its thermal efficiency. Space age adhesives and fasteners are used to join the roof to the body of the car in a way that accommodates the different thermal expansion characteristics of steel and plastics. Additional composite material is used for the interior lining. U S Liner in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, developed a textured interior liner panel that enhances air circulation without using the standing rib design of earlier car liners that are subject to so much damage during loading and unloading.

Size Limiting Factors

Boxcar size is limited by two factors. If a car is too long, it cannot negotiate curves properly. If it is too wide or too tall, it will not fit through tunnels. The new cars are about as big as a boxcar can possibly be, Wood says. They are 82 ft 2 in long between the coupler faces and 76 ft 9 in between the end sills. They are as wide as physically possible and 16 ft 11⅞ in exterior height. Inside, the cars are 72 ft 3 in long, 9 ft 2 in wide, and 12½ in high. The plug doors — what would be called a sliding pop-out door by a truck body builder — are 12 ft wide and 11 ft 3½ in high. Estimated tare weight is 105,000 pounds, which provides a payload of 181,000 lb based on a gross rail load of 286,000 lb.

The 9 ft 2 in interior width was a special request from shippers of frozen French fries, Wood says. That gives them the capability to place two pallets in the car side-by-side and then hand stack more cartons alongside the pallets. “French fries are cube critical in rail cars,” he says. “Refrigerated boxcar loads of fries always cube out before they weigh out.”

The new cars dwarf existing refrigerated boxcars. They are 22 ft longer inside than older equipment, and the cargo compartment is almost four feet higher. Total cubic capacity is almost double that available with previous boxcars.

The immense interior cube required by the frozen potato shippers benefits other shippers as well. For instance, one of the new boxcars can hold approximately 5,000 cartons of oranges. This is a significant load capacity compared to the roughly 1,200 cartons that will fit in a highway trailer.

The new boxcars are called F-plate cars in railroad parlance. For comparison, the 57-ft boxcars being built for use in Amtrak trains are known as C-plate cars. Although the new BNSF cars are as large as possible, they are cooled by standard highway trailer refrigeration units. “These are exactly the same units used on the 53-ft RoadRailer trailers in our Ice Cold Express intermodal service managed by Mark VII,” Wood says.

The Ultima 53 refrigeration units are capable of cooling the big cars down to -10°F. They also heat. Cars are vented for proper airflow around produce such as apples that build up ethylene gas as they age. However, the new cars are not equipped for controlled atmosphere.

Highway refrigeration units on boxcars are different in one major sense. The air discharge end of the car may be called the A-end and the end opposite the refrigeration unit may be the B-end, but it makes no difference to the car. It can be pulled from either end. The refrigeration unit is a nosemount in name only; the car works just as well with the refrigeration on the trailing end.

Carrier Transicold Ultima 53 refrigeration units can be used for such large boxcars because the cars are well insulated, rigid, and have advanced air-handling systems. Rigidity plays a big part in maintaining temperature control. If the car does not flex as it moves, it leaks less, requiring less refrigeration input. The second factor in using a highway refrigeration unit on a rail car is air delivery. A false ceiling, or plenum delivers chilled air from the refrigeration unit evaporator outlet to every part of the car. Sensors at the boxcar door and at each end of the car provide an accurate snapshot of unit efficiency at all times.

Start/Stop Cuts Maintenance

BNSF expects substantial maintenance savings from these highway units, because, unlike conventional boxcar refrigeration systems, they run only when required. Earlier railcar refrigeration systems operate constantly, alternately cooling or heating to maintain the appropriate thermostat set point.

The start/stop function will save fuel as well as decreasing running hours. New cars carry 350 gallons of diesel fuel, enough for 17 days of normal operation. Just as important as unit fuel efficiency is the fact that BNSF can check boxcar fuel level while the train is in transit. Satellite communication with the refrigeration unit allows operations personnel to monitor unit performance from a distance.

The satellite communication system in combination with start/stop operation and electronic unit control systems is the key to improved utilization of the new equipment. By reducing the amount of time the new boxcars spend at inspection stations, BNSF projects almost double utilization from eight loads a year up to 14 loads. This improvement will cut average load cycle time down to 26 days from an average of 44 days for the existing boxcar fleet.

Nearly all that time saving will come from reduced inspections. With the Advance microprocessor control system on the Carrier Transicold refrigeration units, BNSF can run a complete preventive maintenance inspection without actually touching the car. The Advance system will run the unit through a pre-trip routine and hold any faults detected in memory.

Inspections Ordered Remotely

The pre-trip inspection can be run while the car is anywhere in the BNSF system thanks to a communication system known as StarTrak. Mounted in the refrigeration unit, the system provides complete remote control. Units can be started, stopped, and reprogrammed remotely. StarTrak also is installed on refrigeration units on RoadRailers in the Ice Cold Express intermodal service.

Results of a pre-trip inspection can be transmitted to a BNSF operations center. If no faults are noted or if no critical items are detected, the car can be released for another load without additional inspection. Often the only requirement for car maintenance will be topping off the fuel tank, and that can be done by sending a tank truck to meet the car the next time it loads. The pre-trip routine can be run as soon as a car is unloaded or while it is being repositioned for another load.

If a pre-trip routine shows a fault requiring repair, personnel from Carrier Transicold are notified. The units are purchased with full maintenance service. Carrier Transicold can monitor unit performance and inspection results using StarTrak. In addition to the remote inspections, units receive a hands-on inspection every third load.

StarTrak allows BNSF personnel to monitor loads from start to finish. Cars are not dispatched unless the inspection reports say they are ready to handle a load. But that's only the start of the monitoring process. Air temperature in the boxcar is compared to the temperature ordered on the bill of lading and the thermostat set point as soon as a car leaves the loading dock. If the thermostat is set incorrectly, it can be reset remotely. If warm produce was loaded in the car, operations personnel watch to ensure that box temperature drops steadily as the trip progresses. “We have the capability to watch the performance of these cars from origin to destination,” Wood says.

Operational changes in addition to hardware changes are planned to help BNSF reduce cycle time between loads. For instance, hub-to-hub operation is much more efficient than dock-to-dock movements. A good example is westbound loads that terminate at the Port of Seattle, Wood says. BNSF operates a terminal in Quincy, Washington, about 250 miles east of Seattle. Moving a car from Quincy to the Port of Seattle and back to Quincy takes an average of six to eight days.

To remove those days from trip cycle time, BNSF is negotiating short haul service with several of the steamship lines serving the port. Instead of moving cars to the port where freight must be unloaded and stuffed in containers, BNSF wants to move empty containers to Quincy for stuffing. This would release boxcars for eastbound loads quicker and provide the ocean carriers with containers ready for sailing. The best part of the plan is that it uses an existing train. No new service would be needed.

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