Roanoke Reaps The Benefits Of Rail

When the railroad town of Roanoke in southwest Virginia faced the closure of its landfill a few years ago, area officials opted for waste by rail - a transportation alternative that would use a train to transport trash from a transfer station in the city to its new Smith Gap landfill, located 33 miles west.

Other municipalities use commercial rail to send garbage to offsite landfills, but Roanoke reportedly is one of the first in the country to have a landfill serviced by a dedicated train. Construction of the system was completed early this year, and it has been running smoothly since it began operation in May.

The story of Roanoke's trash train, dubbed the Waste Line Express, began in 1987, when the search for a new, regional landfill site was initiated by the board of the city's old landfill. Surrounding counties, including Franklin, Bedford and Botetourt, evaluated some 36 sites for size and general soil conditions.

Soon, the surrounding counties dropped out, leaving Roanoke City, Roanoke County and the neighboring town of Vinton as participants. Roanoke County managed the landfill siting process and narrowed the original list down to 15 sites.

At this point, the rail concept arose. "We looked at several sites, at my request, that could potentially be served by rail," said John Hubbard, then assistant county administrator and now chief executive officer of the new landfill system.

The two sites with the best rail potential weren't chosen. Hubbard says, "When that happened, we pretty much forgot about the rail and picked the landfill site itself," said Hubbard. After extensive testing and evaluation, the board chose the Smith Gap site in 1989.

Smith Gap's geography presented a tremendous challenge. How could garbage be transported around or over Fort Lewis Mountain, a ridge running 15 miles west from the outskirts of Roanoke?

Several hauling alternatives were defined, but none showed promise - then the rail idea resurfaced. "We figured nobody's going to build a six-mile rail in, but we decided to go to Norfolk Southern just to see if they were interested," said Hubbard. And they were.

After receiving a proposal from the railroad and evaluating the options, the board determined that rail had many advantages over trucking. Rail would be less disruptive to neighborhoods and would produce less noise, smell and dust. It would also be less expensive to operate, safer and more fuel efficient. The overriding belief was that one train a day would be better than a day-long stream of trucks.

City officials chose a 22-acre transfer station site just north of downtown Roanoke, near Norfolk Southern's railcar fabrication shops.

After siting the landfill's components, the Roanoke Valley Resource Authority was formed to build and operate the new system as a separate entity that could borrow its own money and manage the railroad.

The group selected Olver Inc. of Blacksburg, Va., as the consulting engineers. Norfolk Southern agreed to design or specify all rail-related equipment and build a rail spur to the landfill. Toward the end of the project, Hayes, Seay, Mattern & Mattern, a Roanoke-based engineering firm, also became involved.

Much of the transfer station design was dictated by location. Because it lies in a flood plain, the site had to be built up 22 feet. Since it is located near rail facilities, it was designed to look like one of Norfolk Southern's old railroad shops. A weigh area at the front of the station has two Weigh-Tronix concrete-deck digital electronic scales for incoming and outgoing trucks.

The railcars are specially designed, high-side gondolas similar to coal cars but larger - about 70 feet long, 10 feet wide and 17 feet high, with a capacity of 100 tons.

Trinity Industries of Butler, Pa., fabricated the 30 cars by welding together steel plates of various thicknesses and reinforcing them with hat-section side posts. Epoxy and urethane paint were applied to the outside, but the interior was left uncoated.

Each car has a lid, also made of welded steel, which is lifted off with a hoist. Fabricated by Railcar Specialties at a shop in Atlanta, the lids are held in place with guide pins in each corner.

At the landfill site, the train goes to a tipper building about a mile from the landfill itself, where the Rotaside Dumper, a 90-foot-long, 143-ton-capacity, hydraulically-powered machine, dumps trash from the cars. The dumper was designed by Strachan & Henshaw, a British firm specializing in heavy-duty railroad equipment, and built by Craft Machine Works in Hampton, Va.

Strachan & Henshaw used a dumper similar to one previously developed for rotating wood chip cars, which clamped the car around the top opening. Because garbage contains bulky items, they re-designed the clamps to grip around the chassis near the bottom, allowing trash to flow out easier. The dumper lifts a car 12 feet and rotates it 150 degrees in about one minute.

Linda McGowan, project engineer for Olver, designed the tipper building. Since Olver designed the building but the railroad specified the dumper and its foundation, the biggest design challenge was "making sure we had enough clearance around the rail cars and the dumper for it to swing," said McGowan.

To lay the new rail spur, Norfolk Southern had to dig out several areas of the mountain. About a quarter of a mile from the tipper building, the single track branches into five sets used in manipulating the train.

Under federal regulations, the landfill is lined and equipped with a leachate collection system. Liquid flows through layers of crushed stone, felt and soil placed on top of a clay-and-polyethylene liner and into perforated PVC piping buried in the crushed stone. It then flows by gravity through piping to a 700,000-gallon glass-lined steel collection tank. As the tank fills, centrifugal pumps send the leachate to rail tank cars at the tipper building.

The landfill also includes auxiliary systems and buildings and a general-purpose water system with a 250,000-gallon storage tank.

Around The Mountain To begin the sequence of operation, garbage trucks haul nearly 800 tons of trash a day that is generated by Roanoke, Roanoke County and Vinton to the transfer station during business hours. The trucks weigh full on the incoming scale, dump their trash on a large concrete floor inside the building, then weigh empty on the outgoing scale.

Meanwhile, the train to be loaded, consisting of 12 to 15 cars, is parked behind the building. Two cars at a time are uncoupled, and a Track-mobile railcar mover takes them inside the building. On their way, they stop under an open structure at the building's entrance to have their lid raised and suspended in the air while the car is loaded.

Inside the transfer station, the cars are on a lower level from the main tipping floor, allowing front-end loaders to push trash into cars from above. A knuckleboom crane with a clamshell claw helps load heavier and bulkier objects and arranges trash. After loading, the cars are pulled back out, their lids are lowered and they are reassembled to the train.

Every Monday through Friday at 8:00 p.m., the train makes its run to the landfill with a standard high-adhesion locomotive engine pulling the cars. The trip, which takes about an hour and goes through downtown Roanoke, along the Roanoke River and Route 11, passes many farms, businesses and residential areas along the way. Much of the route follows the tracks Norfolk Southern normally uses for coal trains.

The train leaves the set of full cars at the tipper building and brings back a set of empty ones processed that day. It also brings back any full leachate tanker cars and dumps leachate down a sewer line at the transfer station. The train returns to the transfer station by midnight.

At the tipper building, each car is uncoupled, the lids are removed and the car is taken inside and rotated in the dumper. Then the car is pulled out, its lid is replaced and it's placed on a parallel track and coupled to other empty cars. Front-end loaders push trash from the tipper floor into 40-ton articulated dump trucks, which carry the refuse to the landfill.

The total cost of the project was about $43 million, with $34 million borrowed. The tipping fee is calculated on a yearly basis according to the loan debt, which will be $1,803,000 for the first year, said Hubbard.

The new landfill has caused the commercial tipping fee to skyrocket from $25 to $60 a ton. But despite what some local people think, said Hubbard, the high cost isn't due to the train, but to federal regulations involved in installing and operating the landfill.

Norfolk Southern spent $9.5 million on the rail spur, cars, dumper and associated equipment and has a 25-year contract for operating the train with five options for renewing it upon expiration. The contract pays the company $600 for every car hauled, and the price goes down after 1,800 cars are hauled. In the event of a rail strike, Norfolk Southern is responsible for operating the train by non-union labor or hauling the trash to another landfill.

All Aboard To Norfolk Southern, hauling trash presents new business opportunities. "We're always working on projects of this nature - hauling non-hazardous waste, which includes trash," said Cheryl Manning, product manager for environmental services. Five years ago, the railroad set up a two-person marketing team, including Manning, to pursue waste-hauling business. Besides trash, they haul contaminated soil, waste-water, fly ash from power plants, construction and demolition debris and automobile shredder residue.

Other trash-hauling projects are in the works in Chicago, Durham, N.C., and Amelia County, Va., said Manning, but Roanoke's short-haul situation is unique. Most projects involve hauling trash to a landfill out of the region; for example, the Amelia County job involves shipping waste from New York City. "There aren't many restrictions on shipping trash by rail. It's the same as for trucks. The main thing is to cover the cars," said Manning.

By all indications, Roanoke's system is working well with a minimum of startup glitches. In the first week of operation, the power went off at the tipper for a few hours, paralyzing the car dumper; now a diesel generator is being installed.

Hubbard reports that only 62 tons of trash fit in each rail car instead of the expected 65 tons or more because most of the waste is commercial, which is bulkier and doesn't pack down as well as residential waste.

Because the transfer station is in a more central location, trucks require an average of one hour less per trip than with the old landfill. With typical commercial haulers making two trips a day, the time savings is significant, Hubbard said.

Many residents had concerns before the train was in operation, said Keith Garman, who lives a few hundred yards from the tipper building. But now "they realize it isn't as bad as they thought it would be," he said. "We can hear it but it's not a bad sound, and it's definitely better than trucks."

Looking to the future, Hubbard says that the door is open for recycling and other facilities to be added. Room is available at both the transfer station and tipper building for expansion. Logic dictates using the transfer station to save on transportation, but the tipper area remains viable because Montgomery County, located nearby to the west, may join in using the landfill.

The nearby city of Salem, which currently trucks its trash to a private landfill in Amelia County, Va., may also use the landfill. If that happens, all the municipalities immediately surrounding Roanoke will be participating, and the area's trash system will be even more efficient. And to further improve the outlook, if recycling and other options are implemented, the predicted 70-year life of the landfill can be significantly extended.