Waste Trains Log Strong Track Record

During the last seven years, hauling solid waste by rail has evolved from an interesting concept to an accepted transportation strategy almost nationwide.

Up and down the east coast, solid waste and ash are traveling by rail to landfills and waste-to-energy (WTE) facilities daily. On the west coast, it moves successfully to regional landfills in Washington State and Utah.

In fact, only in California is the idea of establishing mega-landfills served by a rail system mired in the planning and permitting stages.

All Aboard All told, an estimated 15,000 tons per day (tpd) of waste is transported via rail. Annually, between 3 and 5 million tons are rolling down the tracks in different regions of the country. If proposed projects in California and Florida are factored into the equation, within the next five years, more than 19 million tons per year of waste could travel by train.

With the exception of three major California projects, most waste-by-rail (WBR) projects take between five and seven years to bring on line. WBR is generally factored into the overall design and development of other waste management projects, such as the development of a new landfill or WTE facility.

The planning for such a project consists of identifying a safe, environmentally sensitive method for transporting trash or ash from collection or generation to disposal. A solid waste planner must compare the environmental and safety costs of loading waste in a truck versus putting it on a train. Reliable operation in severe weather is another major factor to be considered when selecting rail as a transportation alternative.

No Trucks Allowed In Montgomery County, Md., the Northeast Maryland Waste Disposal Authority (NMWDA) uses rail to transport 1,200 tpd of waste from a transfer station serving its 768,000 residents approximately 18 miles to a WTE facility. Although this is a relatively short distance, the county uses WBR to minimize heavy truck damage to its roads.

Using an existing transfer station, waste is baled and loaded into forty-foot intermodal containers on a truck for a short ride to the rail head. It is then transferred to a double stack train for the ride to the WTE facility. Train sets of 20 cars make the 18 mile move.

Since the rail is part of the commuter system serving Washington, D.C., the trains move in a five-hour window from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. They are delivered to a special railyard at the WTE facility, which is designed to handle the containers.

At the yard, the train is split in two. One half of its solid waste is unloaded, and, then, the empty containers are reloaded with the engine still onsite. The train's other half is left at the site to be unloaded later. The set of cars remaining from the previous day - already loaded with ash and ready to go - are coupled to the new train for transport back to the transfer station.

An interesting synergistic use of the county's rail haul system is its ability to haul yard wastes to the composting facility. "Bringing yard wastes from the transfer station by rail has saved quite a bit of money in truck haul costs," said Robin Depot, NMWDA's executive director. "We've expanded to uses which we really hadn't anticipated when we started the project."

The Montgomery County project uses standardized containers to move ash and solid waste, with one slight modification: a small door that was added to the containers' front to prevent a vacuum that would hinder a smooth emptying of the load.

The county owns a fleet of containers to handle the solid waste/ash movement, as well as five containers specifically designed to handle yard waste.

South-Bound Train Roanoke County, Va., was faced with developing a new landfill, 35 miles from the City of Roanoke. The transport of wastes safely through the rural countryside was a major concern.

"Traffic was one of the main issues, as well as reliability, safety and cost," reported John Hubbard, Roanoke Valley Resource Authority's (RVRA) CEO. RVRA concluded that it would take approximately 80 tractor trailers a day to haul waste to the new landfill, Smith Gap.

"There are about 15 miles of rural roads which would have created a major traffic problem," Hubbard continued. "We considered building new roads to handle the traffic. But, when we looked at rail, we discovered it was cheaper to construct a rail line and purchase cars and a rotary dumper than it was to build new roads."

In addition, the Virginia winters caused them to question the reliability of daily tractor trailer use. However, Hubbard reported, despite the 30 inches of snow that fell last year, the rail allowed them to be "up and running the whole time."

Safety also was a factor, Hubbard continued. "One trip a day with rail versus eighty tractor trailers on the road, we felt a lot more comfortable on the safety side with the rail."

Unlike most rail haul projects that use containers to move large quantities of waste, Roanoke Valley uses large gondola cars with removable lids to transport 187,000 tons annually. The entire system consists of a transfer station that receives waste from city, county and town collection crews. Waste also is hauled directly from residences and businesses, as well as collected by commercial haulers that serve the valley's larger commercial establishments.

Once at the transfer station, solid waste is placed in rail cars and compacted. Empty cars in groups of six are positioned under the station's floor, loaded two by two and taken to the railyard, according to Hubbard. A crew from the Norfolk Southern Railway then assembles the cars into a train which travels 30 miles to the landfill. The crew leaves the full cars at night and brings back the empty ones that were dumped that day.

Rail cars are picked up by a rotary dumper that unloads them inside a transfer building, one car at a time. "It takes about 10 to 12 minutes from the time we take it off the railyard until we bring it back," said Hubbard. "The trash then is loaded into trucks that move it to the active face of the landfill."

Sidestepping City Traffic With the imminent closure of the Fresh Kills Landfill, the necessity of moving large quantities of New York City waste quickly and effectively may make rail a critical component of the city's waste management strategies.

A model for future development and growth already exists in the form of USA Waste Services, Bronx to Amelia, Va., rail haul. USA Waste handles approximately 800 tons of solid waste each day from its transfer facility, with a projected growth rate of approximately 2,000 tons per day.

The company uses a specially-built aluminum container to handle the material. "The benefit of our system is that is has quite a bit of flexibility," reported Jim Christie, Regional Transportation Manager for USA Waste's Atlantic Region. "We are able to load from various transfer stations that we own or operate with the individual containers."

The containers are designed to be loaded like other intermodal equipment, with four containers per rail car. At the Amelia Landfill, some 400 miles away, a specially-adapted loader removes the container from the rail car and transports it to the landfill's working face where it is unloaded. The system can handle 120 boxes per day, with an average pay load of 20 tons per container.

Highway traffic congestion and the distance from the city to the landfill makes this system effective. "With the increasing vehicle traffic in and around New York, we see this as the best way to move waste," said Christie. "Getting trucks out of New York City is quite difficult because of the traffic delays and the tolls. So, rail movement makes our life a lot easier."

Marketing For The Future Although railroads involved in transporting solid waste have seen the business grow, early rail at-tempts often found this commodity trying to fit into cars designed for chemicals or bulk materials rather than trash.

For the railroads, these early periods were marked with learning what worked and what didn't. With more aggressive development of specialized equipment, the railroads have recognized the potential for moving garbage and are developing aggressive marketing efforts, including business units focused primarily on this market segment.

For Norfolk Southern, Norfolk, Va., the waste market is poised for future growth, as landfills in the northeast reach capacity. Here, aggressive marketing is critical. "We work closely with our industrial development and sales people in the field and in calling on customers that handle municipal solid waste," said Philip North, Norfolk's Manager of Environmental Services.

"I think as existing landfills, either don't meet Federal requirements or become full, there will be more interest in the Southeast. This is a new market that's one day going to burst into probably a big business for the railroads. It's hasn't quite matured, but it's getting there."

North recommends that municipalities developing new landfills and transfer operations consider site locations in relationship to existing rail lines. "Municipalities looking for alternative facility sites should consider railroads for possible synergies in the early planning stages," he said.

Lee Fulton, Markets Development Manager at CSX Transportation, Jacksonville, Fla., agrees. "The earlier in project planning that you involve transportation the better, particularly when you're talking about railroad," she said. "Most communities have a number of different industrial areas they can choose from in which to place a facility. Being mindful of the railroad infrastructure can really save dollars."

Bigger Not Always Better For most large railroads, solid waste is a small but growing portion of the business. However, as a result of the spin-off of slower density rail lines to regional carriers or short lines, these smaller lines will be even more aggressive in capturing WBR projects.

In Massachusetts' Cape Cod region, for example, WBR is approximately 40 percent of the Bay Colony Railroad's total business. Here, waste is collected from two transfer facilities located at Yarmouth and Otis Air Force Base, and transported in converted boxcars to the SEAMASS WTE facility at Rochester.

While most of the industry seems to target long-haul of waste over distances of 100 miles or more, the Bay Colony movement demonstrates the cost-effectiveness of short distance moves by rail. "The key is utilization," said Bernard Rea-gan, Senior Vice President at Bay Colony Railroad. "We turn these cars daily, and one trip per day is different than one trip per week or month. If you are unable to have a turnaround that is in a small number of days for the equipment, then you need a much longer haul in order to create enough revenue to pay for the equipment."

"The railroads enjoy a cost advantage in transportation, which generally is squandered on equipment cost due to low usage," he said. "Railroads can be competitive on extremely short hauls provided they can have equipment utilization like a truck. That's the key to the economics."

For jurisdictions siting disposal facilities some distance from urban centers, or seeking waste exportation opportunities, WBR may be just the ticket.

By incorporating WBR early in the planning process as part of the overall development of waste systems, solid waste planners could reap secondary benefits that include environmentally sensitive, cost effective solutions to moving solid waste.

Currently, nine waste by rail movements are active in the United States, with several other projects in the planning and design stages. These projects include:

* Columbia Ridge Landfill in Washington State (Waste Management Inc., Oak Brook, Ill.);

* Roosevelt Landfill serving western Washington and Napa County, Calif. (Rabanco Ltd.'s Bellevue, Wash.);

* East Carbon Development Corporation's Columbia Utah landfill serving areas as far away as the east and west coasts (Laidlaw Environmental Services, Columbia, S.C.);

* Spoon Ridge Landfill serving northern Illinois and Indiana (Browning-Ferris Industries, Houston);

* Sawyer, North Dakota Landfill (Laidlaw, Burlington, Ont.);

* Maplewood Landfill handling New York City waste (USA Waste Services Inc., Dallas);

* the SEAMASS waste-to-energy facility serving Massachusetts' Cape Cod area;

* the Roanoke Valley, Va., Resource Authority's Smith Gap Landfill; and

* the Northeast Maryland Waste Disposal Authority WTE project.