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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Fruit shipper sues BNSF railroad

A Quincy, Washington, company that shipped fresh fruit to the Midwest is suing BNSF Railway Co., saying the railroad canceled the company’s 72-hour service to Chicago to concentrate on higher profit oil and coal shipments.

In a federal lawsuit filed in Spokane this week, Cold Train executives said the loss of timely rail shipments cost the company most of its customers and killed a pending $30 million sale of the business.

Gus Melonas, a BNSF spokesman, said he couldn’t comment directly on the suit, but denied that the railroad would favor one customer over another.

Cold Train formed five years ago to ship freshly picked apples and pears from Washington’s Okanogan region to Midwest markets, the suit said. By 2013, the concept had proven so popular that the company was shipping nearly 700 refrigerated containers of fresh and frozen produce monthly from Quincy and Portland to retail warehouses in 19 states, the suit said.

BNSF knew that a guaranteed shipping time of 72 hours to Chicago “was absolutely necessary for shipping the produce fresh,” the suit said. But by the fall of 2013, the percentage of shipments arriving on time started dropping. By February 2014, only 4 percent of the shipments were arriving within 72 hours, according to the suit.

Cold Train had found an investor to buy the company, so money would be available for continued business expansion, the lawsuit said. Two Cold Train executives, Steve Lawson and Michael Lerner, contacted BNSF repeatedly about the delays, the suit said. BNSF officials assured the executives that they were working hard to resolve the issue and to reinstate on-time shipments, according to the suit.

In April 2014, BNSF notified Cold Train that it was canceling 72-hour shipments to Chicago and starting 125-hour service, the suit said.

“… the change was motivated by BNSF’s decision to totally ignore all produce growers and shippers in Washington, to forgo devoting trains and track to them but, instead to commit all of its resources … to more profitable oil and coal shipments,” the lawsuit said.

“BNSF’s motive for doing this was purely greed,” said the suit, which seeks more than $41 million in damages.

Melonas, the BNSF spokesman, said the railroad experienced well-documented delays beginning in late 2013, which were the result of severe winter weather in the Midwest and East Coast and high demand for rail service.

He said that rail officials talked regularly to customers throughout that period, so they knew when service would improve and could make business plans.

“Any suggestion that BNSF would intentionally seek to cause harm to any customer runs completely contrary to how BNSF conducts business,” he said.

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