Reefer Renaissance

Reefer Renaissance

These days, companies involved in the cold chain are the cool kids on the playground — everybody wants to be like them, and everyone wants to be their friend.

Hub Group just spent $83 million on a smaller competitor, in large part because Exel had a temperature-control division and 500 refrigerated trailers. C.R. England and J.B. Hunt are diversifying by adding refrigerated containers to their fleet of reefer trailers — eyeing the possibility of intermodal service instead of cross-country driving.

A few years ago, reefer movements all but disappeared from the nation’s railroads. Rail carriers scrapped aging cars and didn’t purchase new ones.

The landscape has changed markedly. It changed not because shippers complained to the federal government and bullied rail carriers into providing the service, but because private companies headed by true entrepreneurs saw the value and promise in shipping frozen and perishable goods by rail and invested their own funds in the idea.

Railex began the movement by investing in two refrigerated warehouses large enough for trains to move through and a fleet of railcars to match. The company’s business keeps growing; it has added service lanes, facilities and more cars. Producers now can reach new markets with lower transportation costs because a group of investors risked their time and money on the concept.

Then came Cold Train with a twist on the idea: Instead of railcar service, the company invested in refrigerated domestic containers, something it had to develop and have manufactured for them. Now the company is expanding, adding equipment and service area to its offerings.

Castle & Cooke is following Cold Train’s intermodal lead, offering refrigerated intermodal service from Stockton, Calif., to the Midwest.

A large number of agricultural producers have complained long and loud that railroads are unfair, that railroads don’t offer adequate service and that they should be forced to offer service to farmers at lower prices. They need to realize that service and export possibilities exist, but not in the traditional manner. If a thriving export market is a viable possibility for dairy farmers in Wisconsin, they should convince an intermodal marketing company to invest in containers and set up shop somewhere near a railroad. If enough loads were consolidated, a railroad would agree to stop and pick them up.

It would be a lot of work, true. But the result would be quicker and better than merely asking Congress for a law.

Stephanie Nall is editor of Cool Cargoes. She can be contacted at