NFI believes the next big thing in intermodal transportation is refrigerated containers, and the New Jersey-based trucking, intermodal and logistics company is getting ready to put half a dozen of them into service to test the waters.

Headquartered in Vineland, N.J., NFI owns nearly 60 trucking and maintenance facilities nationwide and globally, with over 10,000 tractors & trailers encompassing regional and dedicated fleets. NFI got into the intermodal business about four years ago, says Ike Brown, president of the company's intermodal business.

"The next business we're getting into is refrigerated containers," Brown says. "No one in the U.S. is really doing refrigerated containers now. But we feel that's the next evolution within the intermodal arena."

Currently, refrigerated intermodal freight is typically moved in trailer-on-flat-car operations, Brown says. But a refrigerated container would allow for more cost-effective double-stack operations.

The transit times of the railroads have improved to the point where that should not be an issue as far as moving food product across country, Brown says. In addition, NFI will be using Par Logistics Management to track the containers as they move through the drayage system and across the country by rail. Not only will they be able to track location, but also data such as the fuel level, the temperature inside the container in several areas, and whether the load has shifted.

Brown points out that a refrigerated container costs $50,000, five times as much as dry box. "You have to find the right shipper, the right density lane," he says. One of the big challenges was making sure the refrigeration unit would have plenty of fuel, so NFI has spec'ed 120-gallon fuel tanks on the containers. A test load from Los Angeles to Chicago indicated that was plenty of fuel.

NFI is expecting to take delivery in mid- to late June and has just started a marketing campaign to find shippers to sign on for the trial. The initial units will operate between Los Angeles and Chicago.

"We're confident we'll find a home for these six units and will find enough demand to buy additional units," Brown says.

NFI isn't the only company looking into cross-country refrigerated rail container service. Last month, Rail Logistics, Columbia Colstor, Chicago Cold Storage and the Port of Quincy, Wash., announced a new expedited refrigerated intermodal "Cold Train" container rail and distribution service between Quincy and Chicago.