Coolest Rail Cars Carry Wine

Napa wines make tracks to East in cryogenic conversions

by Jane Firstenfeld
railroad cornerstone Systems
A California Northern Railroad engine pulls a white railcar from Cornerstone Systems, which recently leased 50 hyper-insulated freight cars dedicated specifically to the Napa Valley wine industry.
Memphis, Tenn.—With shippers opting from all-truck to intermodal truck/rail transportation “at the fastest pace in years,” Memphis-based Cornerstone Systems recently leased 50 hyper-insulated freight cars dedicated specifically to the Napa Valley wine industry. The company already is moving about 2,000 carloads of wine per year to important eastern markets including Boston, Connecticut, New York and Florida, according to Burke Anderson, Cornerstone’s vice president of railcar services.

Cornerstone’s August newsletter reported results of a survey by the Wolfe Trahan research group: During the second quarter of 2011, it stated, “The shift from roads to rail occurred more than at any point in the last eight years. Shippers expect to shift more domestic cargo to intermodal in the months ahead.”

The survey credited improved rail service for part of the shift, but conceded there is also “a strong correlation between modal shifts and oil prices.”

Anderson noted that newer locomotives are more fuel efficient, and that rail in general is more environmentally friendly than diesel trucks. A single freight car can carry as many as 5,000 cases of wine—3.5 truckloads per car. This reduces both fuel emissions and highway congestion and damage. Factoring in intermodal (vs. all-train) transportation, Cornerstone’s dedicated wine cars are online to ship some 10 million-plus cases per year, Anderson said.

The big chill
Cornerstone has been shipping Napa wines in insulated cars for about 14 years, but, Anderson told Wines & Vines, the new fleet’s much heavier insulation provides an enhanced temperature profile. The leased cars previously were used for cryogenic transportation of materials requiring ultra-low-temperature handling.

Most commonly, wines are shipped in case pallets—but, Anderson said, Cornerstone will ship as little as one case. One shipment involved 4,600 cases from a single client. Although Cornerstone has concentrated on the Napa Valley, it can accommodate truck or rail shipments from Sonoma, Mendocino and elsewhere in Northern California at the American Canyon terminal.

Outgoing shipments are moving at a fast pace, but at the moment, “Currently we are bringing them back empty,” in order to meet Cornerstones’ goal of 10 turnarounds per year, said Rick Rodell, CEO/chairman. “As time goes on, we will find compatible business that we can load back.”

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