The COVID-19 pandemic has changed shipping patterns of Canadian National Railway’s temperature-controlled cargo service in response to demands from its customer base. “The resiliency of the food industry through the pandemic and the shift from restaurant to retail has allowed CN’s CargoCool product to maintain our upward growth plan while continuing to price our product to market,” said Dan Bresolin, Vice President Intermodal – Consumer Product Supply Chain, in response to questions from Canadian Sailings. In the last two years, CN’s 53-foot container fleet has grown by 200 while also in that time, CN onboarded 16 additional genset powerpacks to support growing demand for its international service.

The 53-foot domestic reefer and 40-foot international reefer are separate temperature-controlled products within CN’s CargoCool program. Both can load from rail to a road chassis for truck delivery.  But the 40-foot reefers generally move on CN genset powerpacks with import and export overseas freight, while the 53-foot containers move domestically directly to retailers.

Two new initiatives

Recently, however, CN created two new initiatives. One is a transload and crossdocking solution in response to the container shortage in international shipping. As capacity permits, CN is positioned to offer transload capabilities from a steamship line container to a CN 53-foot reefer container for movement from a port city to final destination within North America.

The second initiative is a 40-foot domestic genset service. It uses 40-foot steamship line reefer containers in CN’s Domestic Reposition Program to support temperature-controlled shipments. “Offered in specific domestic origin-destination lanes, this program will offset CN and steamship line repositioning costs while offering an attractive price point to domestic shippers,” Dan Bresolin said.

If the pandemic has proven one thing, it’s that people need to eat. In response to that need, CN is continuing to invest in products to support the food industry — now and in the future. “As the industry changes, moving to more fresh and less frozen, we will continue to innovate in step with these changes and continue to manage a strong growth agenda for this segment.” In the years leading up to the pandemic, much of that segment’s growth came from regulatory changes that resulted in cargos being shipped with temperature control that previously didn’t require it — such as over-the-counter medications like cough syrup and ointments.

In the last two years, CN has also witnessed growth in exports from Canada to overseas markets of chilled and fresh protein products. “These products have shorter shelf life and a lower risk tolerance requiring a cohesive customer/carrier proactive relationship. Over the last two years, we have worked very closely with key protein shippers and steamship lines to support this growing segment.”

Expanded genset service

In 2020, CN expanded its powerpack genset service to the U.S. by offering service between Chicago and the Port of Mobile. With weekly departures, CN is creating a low customer-asset solution to move U.S. product from the Chicago area and U.S. Midwest to markets overseas with improved fluidity.

CN also expanded its involvement at the Port of Philadelphia to help move fresh and frozen goods to the Canadian market. That service is also removing trucks from the road, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, while enabling the Port of Philadelphia to play a bigger role in the Eastern Seaboard supply chain.

The core to CN’s international temperature-controlled service is its underlying power products that now include 105 genset powerpacks and 148 genset clips with services across Canada and the U.S. CN’s powerpack provides plug capacity to 17 units in a single service, which eliminates the need for privately sourced genset clip power. CN plans to increase the number of genset clips-ons in the near future to keep up with growing demand. This fleet is primarily used in lanes where demand does not meet CN’s minimum powerpack requirements. The fleet also acts as an ancillary power solution where rail-related challenges might affect powerpack availability.

Underslung chassis or generators remove the additional need for mounting and dismounting of the clip-ons, allowing a container to move easily from rail to road. Provided shippers are using CN’s powerpack service, underslung chassis provide a low touch-point solution to intermodal refrigerated transport. “Either way, the CN team has worked hard to develop and maintain strategic operating plans within our terminals to ensure, whether a unit is using a clip for delivery or underslung, the power integrity is maintained through the container’s CN experience.”

IntelliGEN™ technology

Equipped with proprietary IntelliGEN™ technology, CN’s genset powerpacks allow monitoring of power quality in transit to help maintain food safety and product quality throughout the CN network. CN plans to make significantly more investments in gensets in 2022, as well as investments in ancillary power such as underslung chassis and ground power plugs — with a focus on greener, more sustainable energy solutions.

CN’s IntelliGEN™ technology manages the power quality integrity to the units while in transit on rail. That includes voltage, current and harmonic distortion across the power connection with real time data and feedback for constant in-transit monitoring. “This technology has helped CN take a leading role within Canada for the shipment of chilled proteins to market overseas.”

Under its international temperature-controlled service, which the railway relaunched in 2012, CN now operates more than 60 regularly scheduled weekly powerpack departures across Canada and the U.S., supporting both imports and exports. CN worked with steamship line partners on an export loading plan “to ensure a fluid movement” of containers from the shipper, through CN’s terminals and rail network, to the port “for on-time vessel departure.”

CN’s terminal assets include ground power plugs and underslung chassis that allow for constant power management. A dedicated international cold-supply-chain customer-service team assists throughout the container’s trip. For customer-forecasted import freight, CN coordinates its assets with port partners to ensure a three-day maximum port dwell to maintain food safety and product quality.

Fixed schedule for timely arrivals

CN’s international service focuses on overseas import and export freight directly to and from the three coasts on its network. That international service runs on a fixed weekly schedule “to ensure timely arrival at the port.”

The domestic service has a fleet of more than 2,000 CN- owned 53-foot containers. They focus primarily on intra-Canada trade, delivering right to grocery and food distribution centres.

Crucial to CN’s international temperature controlled business is the Port of Halifax, especially since CN is the only major railway serving that port. “With capacity to receive large steamship line vessels, the Port of Halifax allows CN to offer a consistent, balanced service to our local shippers and receivers at a scale that meets the needs of the underlying market,” said Mr. Bresolin. “We similarly work with our partners at the Port of Saint John and the Port of Montreal, which play as important a role in the CN international temperature-controlled service, to facilitate the movement of temperature-controlled goods to market as well.”

Neither the international nor the domestic service is fixed within Canada. The international program covers overseas markets with services through the Port of Philadelphia and the Port of Mobile. The domestic service covers North America. While the primary domestic focus is within Canada, CN also serves the U.S. and Mexico through its terminal network in Chicago, Memphis and New Orleans as well as CN’s long-standing relationship with other Class 1 railroads to reach the Mexico market.