TUCSON, AZ — A new concept for moving produce across the country was explored April 29 during an event at the port of Tucson, here. The gathering drew an estimated 400 attendees and was co-hosted by the port of Tucson and the Tucson International Airport.
This 800-acre rail and distribution facility is about an hour north of the Mexican border and the Nogales produce houses that ship a large share of Mexico’s fresh produce throughout North America.
In 1996, the port of Tucson was launched by entrepreneur and engineer Alan Levin along the main line of the Union Pacific rail line, which runs from the Los Angeles area to El Paso en route to Union Pacific’s Chicago railhead.
To date, Levin has built 2 million square feet of warehousing space at the port. Levin said April 29 that this is about 15 percent of the warehousing he foresees for the port. Tucson Frozen Storage is already in place.
Ground work is under way for a climate-controlled produce-specific facility 1,200 feet long by 200 feet wide that is expected to be completed late this summer. On the street side will be 88 truck bays, and the interior will be subdivided into 12 cold rooms, each measuring 100 by 200 feet.
The rail side will have a loading dock 30 feet wide that encloses refrigerated rail cars to assure that correct temperatures are maintained throughout the distribution process.
Levin’s vision is to load unit trains of at least 60 rail cars each to be shipped to ideally one receiving point — or, as he says “forward distribution point” — in the mid-Atlantic or northeastern United States. In Chicago, a CSX engine will receive the unit train from Union Pacific.
While Levin expects to have this working by this fall, he declined to specify the eastern receiving point plans, other than to express solemn confidence that the theory will soon be a profitable venture.
The key to this success is cooperating with Nogales distributors to consolidate truckloads of produce to fill this train. Levin said he initially plans to ship one unit train a week, but he expects that will expand over time.
Stefan Baumann, director of business development for the port of Tucson, told The Produce News that if just a small percentage of Nogales’ produce volume is consolidated in Tucson, it would be sufficient for the unit train program to be a success.
The full-agenda April 29 meeting, titled “IDEAS 2015…Feeding the World, this is going to be cool!”, involved speakers and panelists who weighed the options.
Lance Jungmeyer, president of the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, based in Nogales, AZ, was a speaker and moderated a panel of railroad representatives, intermodal transportation experts and a refrigerated rail car manufacturer to discuss the possibilities.
Jungmeyer told the Nogales distributors in the audience that adding the rail option for shipping to East Coast customers is a new competitive tool to compete with gains made by south Texas shippers in gaining a percentage of the Mexican export business. Jungmeyer also shared statistics showing that Nogales’ total volume continues to grow, as Mexican produce exports grow.
The discussion included a tough trucking outlook with aging truck drivers, increased trucking industry regulations and rising costs for truck fleet maintenance.
Perhaps the greatest challenge facing Tucson’s unit trains is simple produce industry skepticism based on a dubious rail service — and several failed new ideas — in recent decades.
But in the last 20 years, Levin has carved a remarkable international port of trade in the desert outside of Tucson.