Has Railhaul Finally: Made the Turn?

Railroads are part of the country's mythos. Building the United States by uniting it, in the beginning railcars could go where barges couldn't. They also could move materials more quickly than carts or wagons.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, the transportation of solid waste by rail enjoyed a surge of interest, which soon began to level off as growth projections for railhaul were not met. It seemed as if this waste transportation mode had been detoured, if not derailed.

Yet despite today's popularity of waste transport by truck and a revival in waste barges on both coasts, waste-by-rail projects are not totally off the tracks. As the new century begins, railhaul may find itself positioned for a resurgence, particularly in California and in New York City, which is preparing for the closure of the Fresh Kills Landfill.

Derailment or Detour? In the early 1990s, railhaul was chugging along nicely. More than 1 million tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) were expected to be shipped by rail in 1990, and that volume was predicted to grow to 25 to 35 million, according to "How Big a Role for Railroads," a March 1990 Waste Age article [page 64]. While railroads had a 1 percent market share for waste transport in 1990, the article indicated that it had a long-term potential to grow to 15 to 20 percent.

In 1990, Conrail, Fort Worth, Texas, and CSX Transportation, Jacksonville, Fla., were the only two major railroad waste carriers on the East Coast. Conrail's 1990 revenue of $10 million from waste transport in the East was expected to grow to $100 million by 1998. And railhaul was such a hot topic that Waste Age published a series of articles on the subject and even co-sponsored a railhaul conference in December 1991 [See Waste Age, February 1992, page 41].

However, by 1997, waste-by-rail had slowed. In that year, Waste Age reported that 16 operational rail systems were shipping 9,000 tons of MSW each day (about 3 million tons per year). This number, less than 2 percent of the U.S. total, fell far short of the 1990 projection of 25 to 26 million tons [See Waste Age, January 1997, page 60].

As for Conrail, half of its eight waste railhaul projects had ceased by 1997. In 1998, the railroad was acquired jointly by CSX and Burlington Northern/Santa Fe, Fort Worth, Texas - one of many consolidations in the railroad industry.

Southern Pacific Railroad was purchased by Union Pacific, Omaha, Neb., in 1996. Allied Waste Industries Inc., Scottsdale, Ariz., purchased ECDC Environmental, Salt Lake City, along with Rabanco, Seattle, in 1997.

The rosy projections early in the decade were based on common predictions of both a landfill space shortage and many landfill closures as a result of non-compliance with Subtitle D, according to consultants and representatives from both the solid waste and railroad industries.

The number of landfills did drop from 5,726 in 1991 to 2,893 in 1995. However, according to National Solid Wastes Management Association (NSWMA), Washington, D.C., surveys, the U.S. MSW capacity actually increased because of new regional landfill sitings and the diversion of MSW from landfills by recycling [See Waste Age, January 1996, page 42].

Furthermore, the capital cost of railhaul requires some certainty of waste quantities, which, given the mis-predictions, were not available.

Waste companies also are accustomed to more entrepreneurial approaches to operations rather than the bureaucracy associated with railroads.

According to Chuck Travis, vice president of marketing and transport for ECDC, who has a combined 23 years of railhaul experience: "Early on, the possibilities of railhaul centered around the great volumes of waste in Los Angeles," he says.

"But except for Mesquite [Regional Landfill], the Los Angeles projects either still are waiting for permits or have been canceled," he adds. "There are a number of rail options in the Los Angeles market, but to date none of them has matured."

The California Integrated Waste Management Board's (CIWMB), Sacramento, November 1998 "Railhaul Status Report" lists four proposed projects in California for landfills currently capable of receiving waste-by-rail: Eagle Mountain Landfill, Riverside County; Bolo Station Landfill, San Bernardino County; Mesquite Regional Landfill, Imperial County; and Campo Solid Waste Management Project, San Diego County [See "California's Railhaul Status Report" page 193].

The report also indicates that the proposed Los Padres Recovery Park, Santa Barbara County, Calif., which had railhaul potential, no longer is being proposed.

An Eagle Mountain landfill representative was very blunt: "The biggest challenge for our operation is the never-ending permitting process in California that is duplicative, costly and provides endless legal opportunities for delay" [See World Wastes, January 1999, page 22].

Or Will There Be a Rush? Nevertheless, Travis feels that railhaul finally is coming into its own.

"Shipping waste is by far the safest, most efficient and quickest way to transport," Travis says. "It also deals with a lot of issues in this industry. It has the right of way - it keeps the waste out of the public domain and off the highways.

"Containers are sealed, and steps are being taken to maintain low odor," he continues. "Simply, rail is ideally suited to moving large volumes of waste on a daily basis."

David Iverson, who manages waste- by-rail development for Browning- Ferris Industries (BFI), Houston, says the market is nearly ripe.

He believes that when it bursts, "there will be a rush to do more and more by rail." [See World Wastes, January 1999, page 22].

And while the move to railhaul in Los Angeles County has been slow, there is continued support for it. A January 1999 report entitled "Regional Solid Waste in Southern California for the New Millennium," issued by the Rose Institute of State and Local Government at Claremont McKenna College, Claremont, Calif., has called on railhaul as a means to relieve Los Angeles County's disposal capacity shortfalls.

Furthermore, CIWMB's November 1998 report stressed that a number of out-of-state railhaul projects either proposed or in operation, are capable of accepting California waste [See "Haulin' It Out of California" page 190].

New York, New York Now, railhaul discussions are broadening to include New York City. The 2001 closure of the Fresh Kills Landfill may determine waste-by-rail's future in the East. This is because, "Rail provides a definite option for Fresh Kills tonnage, which is why ECDC is trying to develop options in the East, and is surveying the potential."

But Travis adds that it's "too soon to tell how big a role rail will play in transporting Fresh Kills' waste."

There are some basic problems with shipping New York City's waste out of the city by rail. First, New York is on the wrong side of the river. It is surrounded by water and Long Island on all sides, and there is no major bridge that allows trains.

To alleviate the water issue, waste trains could go to Albany first, which would add a day or more to the trip. However, shipping waste from New York by rail is the most cost-effective transport method - even with the additional distance and time - according to a study by Konheim and Ketcham Inc., Brooklyn, N.Y.

The study also suggested that waste-by-rail would be less expensive than trucks if the state could find acceptable destination ports [See Waste Age, August 1991, page 63].

Or, waste could be sent by truck or barge across the Hudson to rail sites west of the city.

In the meantime, New York City has built new transfer stations - one in Brooklyn and two in New Jersey - as part of its plan to divert residential garbage now going to Fresh Kills.

Waste will be transported by barge, rail or truck from the transfer station, with the primary focus on shipping waste by barge from New York to a Virginia landfill.

Don't Board the Boat Concerns about barging waste from New York also have improved the perceptions of waste-by-rail.

The ill-fated Brooklyn barge, Mobro, sailed for 173 days looking for a place to dump its rotting cargo of 3,000 tons of waste. It has been credited by some with starting the landfill shortage scare [See Waste Age, October 1987, page 16; September 1994, page 103].

Another obstacle for barging New York waste is the recent legislative ban on barge-transported waste to Virginia, which places second to Pennsylvania in receiving waste exports [See Waste Age, September 1998, page 8]. The Virginia legislature has capped the amount of waste coming to Virginia landfills at 1998 levels.

This limit, recently signed by the governor, will apply to all waste and will become effective on July 1, 1999. [See "Virginia County Misses New York City Trash," page 77].

At press time, the NSWMA, a division of the Environmental Industry Associations (EIA), Washington, D.C., was discussing whether to file a lawsuit to fight the barge ban and possibly the landfill cap on interstate commerce issues.

If barges are not used to transport New York waste, truck traffic to Virginia would increase, which also has caused public concern about the number of refuse trucks on interstates and state highways.

Truck use recently has come under criticism following high-profile accidents on Feb. 10 and Feb. 22, 1999 involving refuse vehicles headed for Virginia from New York and New Jersey.

Currently, New York is reconsidering its entire Fresh Kills plan. Railhaul may seem like the best option for moving waste from New York City with the negative publicity associated with barges and trucks, but Virginia's landfill caps most likely would inhibit rail transport, too, Travis notes.

There also is renewed pressure from states for Congress to take action on interstate waste transport, which would somehow restrict the interstate movement of waste by barge, train or rail. At press time, bills were being drafted in the House by Reps. James C. Greenwood, R-Pa.; Fred Upton, R-Mich.; and Rick C. Boucher, D-Va.; and in the Senate by Charles S. Robb Jr., D-Va.; and John W. Warner, D-Va.

So far, the U.S. Supreme Court has held in Philadelphia v. New Jersey (1976) and in subsequent decisions that banning waste transport across state lines violates the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution, unless Congress, which has plenary authority over the Clause, says otherwise.

Virginia's argument is that the landfill cap would not violate the Commerce Clause because the cap would apply equally to in-state and out-of-state waste.

Sean O'Halloran, director of Washington affairs for the environment for Union Pacific, told Waste Age that if Congress takes the movement of waste from Fresh Kills as a pretext to restrict waste transport on a national level "we will get very involved in fighting it. We like the Commerce Clause just the way it is," O'Halloran says. "We get very nervous where there are any restrictions on interstate movement of waste because of the implications for other commodities."

And Elsewhere. . . There are railhaul projects that are considered to be successful and involve close relationships between railroads and waste professionals.

Roanoke County and the town of Vinton, Va., rely solely on rail to transport their waste.

The two generate 700 tpd of MSW, which is loaded on specially designed cars and covered with watertight, lock-down lids at the Roanoke Valley Resource Authority's Tinker Creek Transfer Station.

From there, 10 to 12 cars holding 65 tons each are transported 33 miles on Waste Line Express by Norfolk Southern to Smith Gap Station. They are unloaded by what is called the largest rotary dumper in the world.

"Norfolk Southern wanted to work with us," says the Roanoke Valley Authority's John F. Hubbard, explaining the county's success with waste-by-rail.

Also in Virginia, King George County contracts with CSX Rail Service to haul waste from Baltimore/Annapolis, Md., to Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C.

The King George County Landfill receives 25 railcars and 100 trucks per day. The average tip fee of $30 is the same for railcars and truck. The county owns the landfill and WMI operates it.

And, in the Pacific Northwest, Burlington Northern and Rabanco provide railhaul services to the Roosevelt Regional Landfill, southeast Washington.

The landfill receives MSW from 250 railcars per day - as opposed to 20 trucks - taking in 97 percent of its waste from Rabanco. The average tip fee of $20.66 is the same for both rail and truck. In 1997, 77,000 railcars were unloaded there.

Comin' Round the Bend? So is the waste-by-railcar coming around the bend? Twice this decade, predictions for railhaul's future have centered on waste transportation from Los Angeles and New York City.

But with Los Angeles' slow permitting process and New York's uncertainty about how and where waste will be diverted from Fresh Kills, the railhaul's fate is no clearer now than it was in 1997 - except to its proponents.

Hubbard of the Roanoke Valley Resource Authority says he expects railhaul to pick up because of the problems Virginia has been having with truck traffic.

"I just see that it's going to be a major issue," he says. "That's why we went to railhaul - that and environmental concerns, which are less of a problem with rail." WA

The California Integrated Waste Management Board's, Sacramento, November 1998 "Railhaul Status" Report" identified several out-of-state projects capable of accepting California waste by rail.

ECDC Environmental's East Carbon Sanitary Landfill, eastern Utah, has been operating since September 1992 and receives most of its waste by rail through Union Pacific, Omaha, Neb. It currently is receiving nonhazardous industrial waste from throughout California.

The Regional Disposal Company's Roosevelt Regional Landfill, southeast Wash., has been operating for more than four years and currently is accepting waste from Napa County by rail on Burlington Northern/Santa Fe, Fort Worth, Texas, [See Waste Age, December 1995, page 58].

Franconia Technologies Inc., a subsidiary of Waste Management Inc. (WMI), Houston, has purchased a fully permitted but as yet undeveloped landfill site located 100 miles east of the proposed Bolo Station Landfill, San Bernardino County, Calif. All necessary permits have been obtained for the site, which is on a Santa Fe rail line, but construction will not begin until a waste stream is available.

The Butterfield Station Landfill, Maricopa County, Ariz., is owned and operated by WMI. The Southern Pacific rail line serves the landfill, although transfer trucks from the east Phoenix metro area currently haul the majority of waste.

La Paz County Landfill, La Paz County, Ariz., is a public/private partnership between Browning-Ferris Industries Inc. (BFI) and Houston's La Paz County. This Subtitle D landfill currently is accepting tires and other special waste from California, although the railhaul-related aspects are still under construction.

Columbia Ridge Landfill, Arlington, Ore., is owned and operated by Oregon Waste Systems, a WMI subsidiary. Waste has been received by rail on Union Pacific from Seattle since 1991. Contracts are being solicited from northern California

Lockwood Regional Landfill, Storey County, Nev., currently receives all of its waste by truck, but consultants are researching railhaul capability.

Simco Road Landfill, Elmore County, Idaho, is under construction. Ninety percent of the waste is projected to be received by rail.

Source: California Integrated Waste Management Board, Sacramento

Eagle Mountain Landfill, Riverside County

* Rail carrier: Union Pacific, Omaha, Neb.

* Status: Awaiting approvals and permits.

Bolo Station Landfill, San Bernardino County

* Rail carrier: Owned by RailCycle, a limited partnership of Waste Management Inc. (WMI), Houston, and the Atchinson, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway, Santa Fe, N.M.

* Status: Construction plans are complete and work will begin when contractual obligations for a waste stream have been met and a disposal facility has been designated [See "Future of Calif.'s RailCycle System Uncertain" Waste Age, June 1997, page 7].

Mesquite Regional Landfill, Imperial County

* Rail carrier: Developed as part of proposed collaboration between WMI and Union Pacific.

* Status: Final permit obtained in January 1999, making it the first fully permitted waste-by-rail system in California. Construction could begin as early as 2000.

Campo Solid Waste Management Project, Campo Indian Reservation, San Diego County

* Rail carrier: San Diego and Imperial Valley Railroad.

* Status: The project has been affected by the dissolution of MidWaste Systems Inc., which initiated the project and has been the subject of litigation and jurisdictional disputes [see Waste Age, January 1992, page 8; October 1995, page 4; May 1996, page 60; and June 1996, page 10].