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Intermodal

Blue Diamond Almond Growers spearhead ‘Almond Express’ rail service to Ports of LA and LB

As a result of cutbacks in sailings to the Port of Oakland, Blue Diamond Almond Growers are supporting two new rail services transporting almond exports from Central California to the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

On July 4th, Blue Diamond partnered with Union Pacific (UP) and ocean carrier CMA CGM to inaugurate a rail service from the Port of Oakland’s Union Pacific ramp to terminals at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

This is in addition to a UP rail service from Fowler, California (in the Southern San Joaquin Valley) that is transporting containerized almond and dairy products to the Southern California ports also in partnership with CMA CGM.

Blue Diamond says the rail service could move as much as 1 billion pounds of almonds via the so-called ‘Almond Express’. 

In an interview, Steve Schult, Vice President, Global Supply Chain, Blue Diamond Growers told AJOT that the new rail services have been supported by California Department of Food and Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross, Under Secretary Birdsong, and Dee Dee Myers, Director Governor's Office of Business and Economic Development (GO-Biz). 

Schult also cited the support of Eugene Seroka, Executive Director, Port of Los Angeles.

Almond Export Costs For Southern California Rail Service 

Schult said the two rail services transport about 400 containers per week to the Southern California ports.

He said the cost to truck a container to the Southern California ports from the San Joaquin Valley (SJV) was $3,900 per container compared to about $1,900 by rail but there is an added $1,100 trucking charge which brings the total cost to $3,000 per container.

Schult said the $1,100 truck dray cost to Oakland from the SJV was seemingly the cheaper route but problems with cutbacks of Port of Oakland vessel services and Oakland terminal unreliability had prompted Blue Diamond to transport some containers by rail:

So, I am guaranteed that if I dropped a box at the Port of Oakland that it will ship on the rail whereas there is only a 30% chance that it will go out on a ship. My chances are waiting to try and get a gate at Oakland, seeing the gate changes there or facing the equipment and chassis issue at the terminal. So, is the extra dollars’ worth … playing the 30% game out of Oakland? We don’t have the luxury of waiting.”

Schult said an initial rail service from Fowler, California to the Southern California ports prompted the interest in rail: “This was an existing vein that already was transporting dairy products and now is also transporting almonds. So, there is an almond-dairy rail connection to the Port of Los Angeles. And we have a good partnership with the Union Pacific and this partnership is starting to take off… That’s a win for the farmers in the Valley and we see that trend growing. Ultimately, it took a landowner … to provide land for a rail spur to make this happen. On the Northern California front, we started on July 4th with another train. So, we are scaling this with CMA and looking to add MSC onto that vein.”

Repositioning Empty Containers

The motive for the Class One railroads, such as Union Pacific, to support the effort is due to the need for repositioning empty containers: “You have to ask yourself, what’s in it for the big, Class 1 Railroads? They have empties that they need to reposition. And CMA CGM have inland empties they need to reposition. The steamship line would normally be paying the rail for repositioning. And the rail has extra assets that they need to reposition. So, everyone is winning in terms of asset utilization. The size of the trains is 200 containers per week. There’s 150 released per week (from Fowler) and 200 released per week (from Oakland). … this (latter service) is coming from the Union Pacific ramp at the Port of Oakland. It goes to the FMS terminal at the Port of Los Angeles and to the LBCT terminal at the Port of Long Beach. That train goes once a week and leaves on a Monday.”

He says the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach offer more destination opportunities than Oakland: “There’s a lot more availability out of the Port of LA. There’s more lanes … Southeast Asia, Australia, Middle East, the carriers would rather do the one stop in LA than come up to Oakland and then what do you get? Two days to load out? There’s not a lot of options. So, you do have the dray to pay going out of Fowler and Oakland, but the carrier has a 30% reliability rate going out of Oakland. 

Exporting Via Houston and Norfolk

Schult said the long-term strategy for almond exporters is to diversify their port options to include the Port of Houston and East Coast ports, such as Norfolk: “We’re thinking longer term, using our domestic rail infrastructure to build multi-port access through Dallas. This will get us out to East Coast ports and Houston. We see this as a strategy of resiliency around the (truck) driver risk which we see coming in the next three years. CARB (California Air Resources Board) is not going anywhere: I am getting charged for emissions by big retail. The way for me to offset that is to move the almonds across (to) the East Coast to make myself more nimble … And then spreading that goodness through the Almond Alliance with Aubrey Betancourt (CEO Almond Alliance of California) … and democratize those processes for the other (almond) handlers because they don’t have the infrastructure we do.” 

Oakland is Still The Cheapest Route

The Blue Diamond projection is complicated by the fact that freight rates and sailing times are generally lower exporting from Oakland, even though reliability undermines these benefits.

Freight rate data provided by Blue Diamond comparing the cost of exporting one container from Oakland to Shanghai, showed that Oakland was still the lowest cost option: 

Cost Per Container From California Central Valley To Shanghai

Origin

Dray

Ocean Freight

Total

Oakland

$1,100.00

$1,322.00

$2,422.00

Oakland Alternative Rates

$1,100.00

$2,250.00

$3,350.00

LA/LB via Oakland Rail

$1,100.00

$2,250.00

$3,350.00

Houston

$11,000.00

$1,224.00

$12,224.00

Norfolk

$13,300.00

$1,224.00

$14,524.00

Source: Blue Diamond

Transportation times to Shanghai were 18 days from Oakland, LA/LB= 22 days, Houston= 38 days Norfolk= 45-51 days 

However, the schedule reliability of services as rated by Sea Intelligence ranged from: Port of Oakland with 21% to 28% reliability, Port of Houston was rated at 33%, Port of Norfolk ranged from 33% to 48%. The Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach were not rated.

Port of Oakland officials are aware of the problems but feel hamstrung by ocean carriers who have cutback services to Oakland or who are intermittently sailing to Oakland.

There is a growing feeling that agricultural exporters such as Blue Diamond must organize an exporters’ lobby to visit ocean carriers at their corporate headquarters and demand better service to and from Oakland. This should be done in January or February of 2023 before the next round of shipper contracts are finalized with the carriers.

Schult first made his presentation about the new rail services at the Agriculture Transportation Coalition (AgTC) conference in Tacoma where a number of shippers expressed frustration with vessel service cutbacks at Oakland.  

Stas Margaronis
Stas Margaronis

WEST COAST CORRESPONDENT

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