By Keith Norbury

Canada’s two major railways are each ramping up their cold chain game. Canadian Pacific Railway in February launched a trademarked TempPro service for perishable products that is being augmented by the purchase this year of more than 400 new 53-foot “SlimLine” reefers. Canadian National Railway, meanwhile, plans to add more equipment to the 2017 addition of 100 reefer units to its CargoCool fleet, which now has 720 units, Senior Media Relations Manager Patrick Waldron said by email. “Each 53-foot CargoCool container offers the power of almost 100 refrigerators and through ReeferTrak, our team has real time visibility to temperatures inside the box, ensuring that perishable cargo is protected at all times,” Mr. Waldron said.

CP’s new 53-foot reefers will serve the domestic intermodal market, said Media Relations Manager Andy Cummings. “They can move freely between railcars and truck chassis, just like any other 53-foot domestic container,” Mr. Cummings said.

The skinny on SlimLine

The Thermo King SLXi-DRC is also known as SlimLine. As the name suggests, SlimLine has a slimmer refrigeration unit and internal bulkhead, which allows for two additional pallet positions, representing a seven per cent capacity increase. CP is also buying 350 heated 53-foot containers.

“SlimLine containers can be set to a specific temperature, whereas heated containers protect product from freezing,” Mr. Cummings said.

The railway now has more than 900 53-foot containers, including the SlimLines, as well as more than 1,100 heated 53-foot containers.

CP’s new containers can handle any type of temperature-sensitive freight that its customers desire. That includes foods, beverages, soaps, and detergents.

The SlimLines use advanced CoolTrax telematics technology that “will enable the most temperature-sensitive cargo to ride with absolute confidence,” Mr. Cummings said. Door sensor and geofencing technology provide added security against tampering, which makes SlimLines “the ideal choice for products like pharmaceuticals that need both temperature and physical security,” Mr. Cummings said.

All about gensets

That sounds similar to the 500 40-foot EcoTherm super-insulated containers that CN added to its fleet a few years ago. They protect certain products, such as beer, juice and even paint from freezing. EcoTherm containers can maintain their temperature for up to ten days without having to burn any diesel fuel, Jean Jacques Ruest, then CN’s Executive Vice-President and Chief Marketing Officer, said back in 2012. (Mr. Ruest is now CN’s Acting President and Interim CEO.)

CN’s CargoCool program provides the option of using the 53-foot reefers or ocean carrier 40-foot refrigerated containers connected to an IntelliGen Powerpack genset, Mr. Waldron said. “The system uses new power packs, clip-on gensets, underslung generator chassis and 40-foot insulated containers,” he said.

CP, meanwhile, announced the purchase 41 gensets to replace existing gensets in its fleet “to handle business expansion,” Mr. Cummings said. Each genset— CN’s or CP’s — powers 17 refrigerated international containers.

“With the new purchases, CP’s fleet is the youngest in the marketplace,” Mr. Cummings said. CP doesn’t use clip-on gensets, though.

Coming back strong

Transportation consultant Darryl Anderson called CP’s genset purchase “a really significant investment” that gives the railway economies of scale that can generate a good rate of return without charging exorbitant shipping rates.

And he noted that CP is “coming back really strongly in competing for international intermodal and strengthening its cold chain logistics, which is going to present a challenge for CN,” which, he said, “had over a 70 per cent market share for all containers in Canadian West Coast ports.”

The temperature-controlled segment isn’t just refrigerated containers, Mr. Anderson noted. It covers a spectrum of temperatures. “What the gensets will clearly allow you do is you can actually set the temperature that you want for the specific cargos,” said Mr. Anderson. That’s crucial because certain products have a certain temperature range must that be maintained. “You can’t just say, ‘Well, on average we were O.K.’”

Looking to innovate

CP’s cold chain business grew in 2017 compared with 2016, although Mr. Cummings didn’t say by how much. Nor does CP break out statistics on the volume or value of the refrigerated cargos it carries. Nevertheless, CP is excited about the growth prospects for its temperature-controlled business and is also looking to innovate and offer new products. For example, its 40-foot reefer reposition program “helps round trip economics for our international customers and offers a new shipping option for domestic customers,” Mr. Cummings said.

CN has a web-based tracking system, ReeferTrak, that can remotely monitor, set and adjust temperatures on each 53-foot reefer. “While units are in transit, the team is alerted for any temperature changes or alarms which can be resolved immediately or steps put in place to address as soon as possible,” Mr. Waldron said. The railway is testing new designs to improve air flow and reduce diesel emissions and improving monitoring of mechanical issues and key performance indicators, he added.

Dan Bresolin, CN’s Assistant Vice-President of Intermodal International, told the Journal of Commerce in February that the railway has invested in reefer plugs and on-dock reefer racks at the port of Prince Rupert. The long-term plan is to provide the same product as at Vancouver, he said, adding that trials have begun between Rupert and such markets as Toronto, Chicago, and Montreal. Meanwhile, Mr. Cummings said CP is always looking for ways to grow its business and bases any such investments on customers’ needs.

Some cool numbers

Statistics Canada doesn’t keep tabs on refrigerated shipment by rail either. However, it does record railway carloadings for various commodities. They include the category of fresh, chilled or dried vegetables. Rail shipments of that category were down in January and February 2018 compared with the first two months of 2017. In January and February 2018, 6,850 cars were loaded with those commodities compared with 4,148 the previous January and February. That was a decline of 36.9 per cent.

Railway carloadings of fresh, chilled or dried vegetables totalled 39,948 in 2017, which was a considerable drop from the 51,554 carloadings of those commodities in 2016. Railway carloadings of other products likely to need refrigeration have been much smaller in the last two decades, according to Stats Canada tables. For example, meat, fish and seafood preparations only accounted for 47 carloadings in 2017, compared with 67 in 2016, 146 in 2015, and 718 in 2010. Indeed, those figures fluctuate widely, with 65 in 2012, and only 3 in 2006.