Trash on the Tracks

New York City leads the trend of hauling more municipal waste by rail.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the amount of trash that New York City manages and transports each day. Waste Age regrets the error.

A city of 8 million people produces a lot of trash. In New York City, it's not uncommon to see trash bags piled in the streets early in the morning and sanitation trucks adding to the daily traffic congestion. Overall, the city manages and transports more than 12,000 tons of trash per day.

But as part of its landmark Solid Waste Management Plan (SWMP), passed in 2006, the city is working to minimize waste-related traffic congestion and truck emissions in the city. One crucial component of the effort: hauling municipal solid waste to disposal sites via railcar.

According to a press release, the SWMP is designed to “fundamentally change the way the city transports waste.” The plan calls for trucks, which were being used to export 84 percent of the city's residential garbage (which totals roughly 12,000 tons each day) for disposal, to eventually transport only 13 percent.

Instead, the city's goal is to export 87 percent of its residential waste by barge or rail. As a result of the plan, sanitation trucks are forecasted to travel about 2.7 million fewer miles per year, and travel by tractor-trailer trucks will be reduced by 3 million miles per year, according to the mayor's office.

It is a lofty goal, but the city is gradually getting there. All New York City Department of Sanitation (DSNY) collection districts in the Bronx and Staten Island — representing approximately 3,000 tons per day of residential waste — began shipping waste for disposal by train in 2007. Overall, since enacting the SWMP, the department has entered into contracts for the rail export of approximately 4,000 tons of solid waste per day and has completed negotiations for another rail contract that will transport approximately 1,200 tons per day, according to Keith Mellis of the DSNY public information office.

How did the city get to this point? First, officials identified six privately owned rail transfer stations in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx that could be used for waste transfer. Next, officials carefully and methodically procured and awarded long-term rail export contracts, Mellis says. For instance, Phoenix-based Allied Waste signed a long-term contract to move waste by rail out of the recently constructed Staten Island Transfer Station. “As a partner with New York City, Allied provides all the necessary rail equipment, logistical support and operational expertise to ensure the waste is transported safely to its final destination, the Allied Waste Landfill in Bishopville, S.C.,” says Nicholas Fytros, general manger of Allied's New York City Metro Business Unit.

In March 2009, four collection districts in Brooklyn will begin sending trash to distant landfills by train from a private transfer station in the borough. On average, approximately 940 tons per day will be shipped from the station. Six Queens collection districts will begin long-term rail export service by February 2011 and will ship an average of 1,200 tons of waste per day.

To reach its goal of transporting only 13 percent of its residential waste to disposal sites by truck, the city must build four marine transfer stations that will export an average of 5,770 tons of waste per day. The stations have been designed, and two already have the necessary permits. The city expects that the marine portion of the plan will be operational in the next three to four years.

The Rail Movement

New York City isn't alone in its quest to implement rail haul into the transportation of municipal solid waste. “Municipalities are pretty jazzed about movement by rail for a couple of reasons,” says Jane Witheridge, chief operating officer at Transload America, a provider of rail-based transfer, transportation, recycling and disposal of solid waste. “Many [municipalities] have property and infrastructure with rail that is otherwise not being used, and they're looking for opportunities to turn that infrastructure into a positive asset. Also, cities like it because of the cost efficiencies available with rail. Fuel has gone up, so they see rail as a hedge against trucking costs. And it takes trucks off the road so there are fewer emissions.”

Transload America sends its customers monthly reports on the environmental benefits they're enjoying by moving waste via rail. For instance, a recent report for Essex County, N.J., shows that from January 2006 through May 2008, the county avoided 35,366 truck trips and saved 2.2 million gallons of diesel fuel. The same report shows that over five years, rail travel produces 8.7 million fewer pounds of carbon monoxide than truck travel and 832,869 fewer pounds of nitrous oxide.

“The use of rail for solid waste is definitely growing as a result of national policy from the [U.S.] Environmental Protection Agency,” says Bruce Parker, president and CEO of the National Solid Wastes Management Association (NSWMA). “Many of the substandard landfills in operation in the early 1990s were closed and replaced with large, regional landfills, which were built with the intent of serving large areas. Rail haul is especially beneficial if you need to transport waste long distances to such regional landfills, as is the case in New York. It seems more efficient, more economical and offers environmental benefits. There's less congestion on the roads, fewer emissions, and fuel is substantially saved.”

The trend of hauling waste by rail is growing, especially among large cities such as New York, Seattle, Portland, Ore., and Los Angeles, but other communities use the method, says Jeremy O'Brien, director of applied research at the Solid Waste Association of North America. “The pros are the avoidance of long haul transport of waste over the nation's highways and the resulting impacts with respect to fuel usage, road wear and tear, and risks of vehicle accidents,” he says.

Overcoming Rail Challenges

Despite the many benefits of rail hauling, there are some down sides, industry experts say. For instance, “rail infrastructure in this country could be significantly improved,” Parker says. “And if there are problems on the tracks, what are you going to do? You're stuck. It's not as if you're on a transfer trailer and can take another route.”

In addition to dealing with the limitations of railroad tracks, waste haulers must also consider the challenges of being a newcomer to an old industry with plenty of established ties. “A couple of years ago when the price of steel was very high, some shippers couldn't get railcars,” Parker adds. “In times of scarcity, the railroads give those cars to their largest customers.”

New York City officials are finding the cost to be a challenge. “The city has sought to implement the SWMP long-term export program in the face of rising costs for steel [used in the construction of rail cars and intermodal containers] and diesel fuel [used by rail engines],” Mellis says. “As a result, the cost of rail transport is higher [than it used to be], and rail haul contracts are limited in term to a maximum of five years.”

Other challenges include the dependence on a single rail line and/or company to provide the transport service and the difficulty of scheduling trains to match landfill operating hours, O'Brien says.

Perhaps many of the challenges municipalities face in transitioning to rail haul fall under a broad category of inexperience with the method. “Transporting waste to a landfill is difficult enough, without having to learn the different rules and regulations, safety procedures, and operating efficiencies that are involved in rail transport,” Witheridge says. “Knowledge of logistics and how rail companies work [can bring a shipper greater success].”

Since Allied Waste began transporting Staten Island's waste by rail, it has experienced “a few minor delays associated with bridge outages or non-waste related system derailments,” Fytros says. In those rare instances, service was restored with little to no impact on the waste shipments. Allied has a number of contingency plans to ensure waste can be safely disposed of if a major weather event or other incident causes a significant rail service interruption.

Looking to the Future

Despite the challenges involved in navigating the waste-by-rail trend, plenty of municipalities are finding the benefits are worth the risks. “There are close to 3,000 [rail] transfer stations in the United States,” Parker says. “It's a growing phenomenon. A company just has to understand the economics of rail versus truck. Primarily, rail haul is used for longer distances.”

Other municipalities considering transporting waste by train can learn from New York's experience. “Assume that the rail haul contracts will include fuel surcharge fees and that they will be available for a maximum of five years,” Mellis says. “Seek rail-served disposal facilities that are serviced by more than one long haul rail carrier so that there will be competition in the award of rail contracts and so that alternate routes are available in the event that uncontrollable circumstances arise that affect rail service.”

As communities become more environmentally conscious and depend more on regional landfills, industry experts agree that the trend will continue. “I think waste by rail will continue to play a central role in the waste services sector,” Fytros says. “My guess is that we will see a steady increase in the near-term future, [especially] in markets where landfill airspace is scarce.”

With more municipalities turning to rail as an alternative for transporting waste, relations with rail companies will strengthen, leading to better rates, Witheridge says. “Rail companies are beginning to understand this as a business line,” she says. For many years, the corrugated paper and scrap metal industries have enjoyed good relationships with the railroads, she adds.

Construction debris and municipal waste are relative newcomers, but as the two industries begin to understand rail companies better, the relationships are bound to improve.

“[Right now, rail companies charge] different prices depending on what the commodity is [that is being shipped],” Witheridge says. “If we use waste-related commodities [such as corrugated paper and scrap metal] as benchmarks and begin to better understand each other's needs, we'll continue to drive the prices down.”

Nancy Mann Jackson is a contributing writer based in Florence, Ala.

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