Food train poised to be ‘game changer’ for Indiana


By Sherry Bunting

INDIANAPOLIS – A new mode of transportation is poised to be a ‘game changer’ for Indiana, providing the ability to move fresh food products to the southeast and beyond; to engage resort buyers in the Caribbean, and Central and South America, as well as tapping the growth markets for dairy protein in the Pacific Rim.

In March 2014, a new “food train” will begin transporting refrigerated and frozen food products from Tampa, Florida to Northwest Indiana… and back again. Add to this the anticipated renovations to the Panama Canal enabling cargo to sail from eastern U.S. and Gulf ports to destinations in the Pacific, and the net result is a whole new world of marketing opportunities.

Indiana dairy farmers are well positioned for the future via the Green Express -- a new mile-long dedicated, high speed, non-stop, food train capable of transporting refrigerated and frozen dairy products direct from Kingsbury to Tampa. The new route stems from the 800-acre INland Logistics Port at Kingsbury, LaPorte County, connecting the Kingsbury Industrial Park to the CSX rail line just south of Chicago.  

This is what the Indiana Department of Agriculture views as a potential “food campus” to be anchored by the new food train traveling nonstop to and from Tampa, with the Tampa destination positioned within 500 yards of port.

This trip takes 52 hours by truck and 56 hours by train; however, both Chicago and Tampa are “international trade zones,” so, once the food is on the non-stop Green Express, it is deemed exported and can be offloaded upon arrival without waiting the many days of administrative time and additional fees required for inspections.

“We’re connecting the pieces and combining the parts to help get their stuff up here and our stuff down there.” said Chris McGrath, a partner in the Chicago-based Providence Logistics, the owner and developer of the logistics park that will operate the Green Express. “We’re optimizing the supply chain to get product distributed faster and fresher, with less waste and less spoilage, while realizing savings in fuel costs as well as other downstream benefits.”

McGrath spoke during the Indiana Dairy Producers (IDP) annual Partners in Success Luncheon in the Farm Bureau building at the Indiana State Fairgrounds Friday, October 25 in Indianapolis. He unveiled the current status and future plans for the Green Express, funded through the private investment of the Providence Logistics partners, along with LaPorte County’s investment in site improvements to the logistics park and CSX rail line.

McGrath piqued the curiosity of the 80 luncheon attendees -- including the IDP board members, advisors, and representatives of the many allied industries that support IDP. He answered questions about how fresh dairy products can hitch a ride on the backhaul from Northwest Indiana to Tampa, Florida with port-to-port “trading zone” status on the food train.

Doug Leman of Indiana Dairy Producers (IDP) and Andy Tauer of the Indiana Soybean Alliance have been promoting the Green Express to dairy cooperatives and proprietary plants over the past year, while the Indiana Department of Agriculture has promoted the idea of a “food campus” to processors of various commodities from beef and bacon to fruits, vegetables and milk.

The Kingsbury site is unique in the nation for its ability to have a mile-long stretch of straight track for exit, and to lift and load containers. It is also smack-dab within what McGrath calls one of three major “consumption zones.”

“The Upper Midwest consumption zone is 42 million people in a 250-mile distribution radius of the Kingsbury site,” he explained. “What we envision is ‘steady-Eddie’ freight by rail for the long haul and the use of trucks to manage spikes in capacity and for local and regional distribution within those consumption zones.”

He also stressed this is not the rail transit of yesteryear. Not only do the rail units have specialized food quality optimizers, including GPS controls, the rail service for these units is a dedicated, high-speed, nonstop transit line, moving a hybrid of containers from grain and lumber to boxcars of chilled fruits and vegetables to ISO tanks of fruit juices, even milk.

“We spent the past two years convincing the railroads we can move boxcars, containers, and ISO tanks on the same train,” said McGrath.

The ISO tanks will move fruit juice from Tampa to Kingsbury, positioning milk as a potential backhaul.

In keeping with the idea of a “food campus,” IDP has been working on attracting a dairy processor or processors to Indiana in conjunction with the food train.

“The Green Express will move raw product North and South,” said McGrath. “Not only will we have the ability to move large volumes of refrigerated (and frozen) products, but also the available land for companies to vertically integrate to generate retail-ready products at one location.”

For example: “Florida and Indiana are number one and two in watermelon production with opposite growing seasons,” said McGrath. “Processors, who cube the melon for lunch cups commonly sold at convenience stores, must have melons at 40 degrees for that process. Instead of waiting a week in a warehouse to cool the interior of the melons to that point, the process can start in the chilled boxcar on the Green Express. So now we’ve not only lowered their transportation cost, we’ve also lowered warehouse capacity needed for this operation, and their energy costs.”

How viable is the dairy market beyond Florida? What is possible in the long term? McGrath said there are so many ways to utilize this transit option for the domestic dairy market, as well as exports.

“The thing dairy producers will need to figure out is the logistics. Is it better to move dairy by ISO tank on a backhaul or in packaged form,” McGrath suggested. “What we’re offering is the ability to move food in any form. We can connect the dots, but the producers have to decide who they are connecting their product to and what are the dots we can help them connect?”

“We can do it,” said IDP executive director Doug Leman. “The question could become: Is there enough product to send? A rising tide lifts all boats. If we can raise the value of our product by getting it on the Green Express and getting it out of here, that’s good for everyone and helps position us to expand our dairy industry here.”

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