Boston — Most people don't like wilted lettuce, stale bread, moldy oranges, or black bananas. The trick is to get foods from one place to another before they spoil.
This used to be a problem for railroads, which some years ago lost the food transport business to the trucking industry because of the unreliability. Expedited trains carry produce from cities such as Los Angeles or Chicago in guaranteed delivery times, bypassing railway yards, stopping only for crew changes.
Many regions of the country don't produce a wide variety of foods in their own areas, and food transport is an important economic function. In New England for instance, 85 percent of food is impoted from other regions of the US.
And for a share of this market, the railroads now can compete on freight charges with trucks. Until May 1979, when the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) deregulated them, railroads had to publish their rates. Any changes had to go through the ICC -- taking about three months. Meanwhile, the trucking industry could underbid the rails by small amounts and get the business.
Also, the trucking industry was able to take advantage of the new Interstate Highway System to move produce quickly across the nation.
As a result, the railroads' share of fresh produce transport plunged from 90 percent in the late 1940s to around 10 percent.
Today the railroads are winning back the business. Wodd-row Thompson, an official of the Association of American Railroads (ARA), noted that railroads had boosted their transport of produce from the West coast by 25 percent in the first year of deregulation ending last June 1. Their share of the market had risen from 11.2 percent to 13.6 percent.
Mr. Thompson lists three other factors that favor the railroads in their competition with the trucking industry:
* Fuel efficiency of railroads over trucks can be as high as 4 to 1. That means the fuel reqired to carry 50 pounds of food would cost four time more by truck than train.
* The increased cost of maintenance and replacement is more affordable for the large rail companies than for smaller trucking outfits.
* And, in a look to the future, the impact or rising costs is greater on trucks than trains because small, independently operated rigs can't afford t stay in business.
One of the major innovations in train and truck transport is the pibbyback system. Truck trailers placed on rail flat-cars are carried quickly and driverless to a distant truck pickup point. There, the trailers are hooked up to a tractor -- the motor and cab -- and taken to market. The positive impact on food transport is apparent: Under the old system food was mannually loaded and unloaded from rail cars, a system that took longer and increased the possibility of damage.
Dorothy Williams, a representative of the National Frozen Foods Association, describes a concept for moving "any kind of food, even frozen," that combines rail and truck. It is an instance of rivals getting together to provide better serrescrobed jpirs a trucker meets a train and drives aboard. As the train continues, the driver sleeps. When the trucker is readyto resume his trip, the train drops him and his rig off that much farther along his route, his load that much fresher. The new service is to be tested next month in food transport from Florida north.
Other innovations include shipper cooperatives which negotiate to move loads of foods by the most expeditious combination of transport modes. For instance, lettuce from Chicago. Here, contract drivers or barge operators pick up the loads and take them to their next destination.
Russell Hinds, manager of the Transportation and Packaging Research Branch of the Department of Agriculture, says his office, addressing itself to the problems of moving food, has come up with other new ways to improve food transport in all modes.
To "get a better product to the housewife," Mr. hinds identifies four priorities: better packaging, reduced losses (bruising or spoilage), better fuel efficiency, and ultimately, lower product price.
Mr. Hinds has come up with plans for what he terms "the produce truck of the future." This ideal truck "would carry meat, fruit, vegatables, and frozen foods. All kinds of gimmicks would be combined to produce a lightweight, high volume, state-of-the-art unit that people could afford."
One of the most critical areas of food transport is the refrigeration unit. On trucks, boats, and trains this must be operating at peak efficiency to ensure that produce is fresh when it reaches its destination.
One project Mr. Hinds' office is smooting out is using outside air as a supplement to refrigeration. "The most important condition," he says, "is that it's colder outside than in. Air must move through the food, not just over the top."
Rail cars may be stripped down to the bare necessities to lighten energy requirements. Some truck-trailer manufacturers like Fruehauf and Great Dane install light foam between plastics for feather-light insulation and better mile-age. Airlines use similar methods.
Refrigeration units are run by individual generators within the tank, trailer , or container. But, says James L. Clark, director of corporate terminal relations for sea-Land service Inc., ships have been using a centralized refrigeration power system with deck outlets for 25 years. Containers and trailers simply plug in. On trains, the same idea would involve one generating unit sending power through the train's coupling system to possibly dozens of flatbed cars carrying refrigerated truck trailers.