Is Waste Working On The Railroads?

Although railroads have criss-crossed the United States for more than a century, waste by rail is a relatively new way to transport solid wastes. And like the nation's economy, waste by rail is moving forward.

"For the last six years, we've grown at a compound rate of approximately 35 percent a year," said Barry Vann, the director of environmental logistics for Burlington Northern Rail-road's solid waste hauling business. "We just completed our $28 million year - it's the best year we've ever had."

Today's local managers must develop an economical transportation network to move solid waste long distances. As Subtitle D regulations and the difficulty of siting local landfills take hold across the country, the economies of scale of large, regionally based disposal sites have become increasingly apparent. With large landfill sites, the costs of meeting the new regulations can be spread over a higher volume of incoming wastes.

"You match up a large regional site and the size of it gives you economies," said Warren Razore, president of Rabanco. "You match [this with railroads] and you're very cost-competitive for long distances."

Most large systems only began receiving wastes within the last four years, including Rabanco's 2,500-acre Roosevelt Regional Landfill in Washington, one of the first facilities designed as a rail-served disposal facility, and East Carbon Development Corp.'s (ECDC) Utah facility.

Snohomish County, Wash. Snohomish County is located along the northwest coastline of Washington, less than 100 miles south of British Columbia, Canada. With a population of 515,000 people, Snohomish County generates approximately 508,000 tons of refuse per year. Its recycling rate is estimated at 38 percent and requires disposal of 315,000 tons of residuals. In 1988 the county investigated rail haul of wastes.

"By the mid-'80s, we were seriously looking at building either a new landfill or a waste-to-energy incinerator," said Jeff Kelley-Clarke, the county's solid waste utility director. "By 1988 we decided on the incinerator. At that time, the waste export proposals came to light."

Due to the projected costs of between $60 to $65 per ton for the incinerator, the county investigated waste by rail. "We spent six to eight months investigating what waste by rail would require and cost," remembers Kelley-Clarke. "Our council decided that rail haul was definitely cheaper and probably less controversial, although that was very uncertain at the time."

With a starting price of approximately $37 per ton, Rabanco was the successful bidder for the project. "Our landfill would still be cheaper but it's difficult to say what the operational costs would be," Kelley-Clarke said. "There's a lot of controversy to operating a landfill, especially in an urban area with high rainfall. In our circumstances, waste export is not as cheap as going with your own landfill - but it's easier."

Today, Snohomish County pays $43.08 per ton to rail haul to the Roosevelt landfill. The county owns and operates three transfer stations and six small rural drop off boxes. At the transfer station, solid waste is dumped into pits and compacted with large, Amfab and SSI waste compactors, then inserted into 40-foot, lightweight, standard containers already on the trucks. The loaded waste containers weigh around 25 tons each. Once loaded, the containers are hauled to a rail yard in Everett, Wash., operated by Rabanco.

Using a top pick machine, the containers are lifted from the truck chassis and loaded onto the rail cars for transfer to Burlington Northern Railroad (BN) and then on to the Roosevelt site, 340 miles away.

In western Washington, Burlington Northern runs dedicated intermodal waste service, consisting of two trains per day with 80 to 120 containers per train between a number of points. The first train starts in Everett, Wash. Then, between 70 to 100 containers are loaded at Snohomish County. Next, the train pauses in Tacoma to pick up solid waste from Pierce County and contaminated soil from several area clean-ups. This train also may stop in Central- ia, Wash., to pick up more waste.

The second train begins in Seattle with materials from Rabanco's downtown recycling facility; 48-foot containers hold the construction debris and 20-foot containers carry contaminated soil. At Renton, construction debris is loaded from Rabanco's new C&D processing facility. The train moves south to Vancouver, then east to Roosevelt.

The first train arrives at the Roosevelt Landfill at 7 a.m. It will finish unloading around noon, when the second train arrives. It takes approximately 12 hours to remove, empty and reload the containers onto the train. The roundtrip is 24 hours and it requires another 12 hours before each container is loaded and ready to start the cycle again. Each of the four dedicated train sets complete a cycle in 48 hours.

At the landfill, the containers are transferred from the rail car to a truck and trailer chassis which moves the containers to the active landfill face. The container and chassis are backed onto a large hydraulic Columbia tipper which raises the entire unit to dump the waste. When the container is empty, the tipper is lowered, the truck tractor reconnects and the container is moved back to the rail cars where it is reloaded. The cycle starts again.

"The biggest problem has been that we've almost run out of containers to load because a train schedule got messed up for one reason or another," Kelley-Clarke said. "We joke that it's almost as though the company has tried to see how many hurdles it can overcome. We faced a national rail strike, a local rail strike, Mount St. Helen puffed during the procedure, there have been major floods, some major snow storms and we have never yet missed a day of hauling garbage," he said.

Hennepin County, Minn. With more than 1 million people, Hennepin County is Minnesota's most populated county. The county's integrated solid waste system includes recycling, composting and waste-to-energy for the 1.4 million tons of solid waste that are generated per year.

The county uses two waste-to-energy facilities. The Hennepin Energy Resource Co., a mass burn plant in downtown Minneapolis, is owned by Ogden Projects and is rated at 1,200 tons per day and receives a daily average of 1,000 tons. The second is the Northern States Power Co., a refuse-derived fuel facility in Elk River, Minn., which receives anywhere between 210 to 800 tons daily.

"We're responsible for providing the disposal location for the ash," reports Tim Goodman, the county's solid waste operations manager. "We have three contracts and disposal locations that serve our ash needs."

One of those disposal locations is the former Gallatin National landfill in Fairview, Ill. Now called the Spoon Ridge Landfill, it was acquired by Browning Ferris Industries (BFI), in 1994. Hennepin County has a put-or-pay minimum of 25,000 tons per year of ash to be delivered to the Spoon Ridge landfill.

The county's ash is accumulated in an ash house, where a front end loader loads it into 20-foot long top-loading containers on trucks.

The ash is trucked to Burlington Northern's St. Paul intermodal yard, where it is held until 12 to 15 containers have been received and are ready for shipment to the Galesburg, Ill., Intermodal hub. At Galesburg, the containers are moved from the rail car to a truck chassis and then hauled about 30 miles to the landfill.

At the landfill site, the trucks back onto a Columbia tipper. After dumping, the truck hooks back onto the trailer and container and hauls it back to Galesburg. A rail car hauls the container back to St. Paul.

Ash is not the only commodity that's handled at the Spoon Ridge landfill. In a process similar to the ash handling, MSW is collected by two Minneapolis contractors. It is then hauled in 48-foot long containers on a truck chassis from a transfer station to the St. Paul rail hub.

BFI contracted with BN to manage the ash transportation. BN has hired two trucking companies to move the containers between the origination and destination points and the railroad's intermodal hubs.

Hennepin County wanted a mono-fill for the ash disposal, but that wasn't available. "There's actually a fair amount of landfill capacity in the region," reports Goodman. "We made it very clear when we sent out the RFP that we were seeking an ash monofill. We did not want our ash commingled. At the moment, no landfills in the region allow ash monofill cells. They're all commingled MSW cells," he said.

The shortage of monofills created a unique disposal need. Currently, MSW landfill tipping fees range between $45 to $75 per ton within the region. This range can be attributed to Minnesota's counties' ability to levy surcharges on landfills in their jurisdictions, especially in the metropolitan area. Yet BFI's $60 tipping fee for ash transportation and disposal is cost-competitive with landfill rates in the Minneapolis region.

For local jurisdictions, rail haul represents a potential solution to the dilemma of siting a community landfill. "We don't see the wisdom, either politically or economically, in any jurisdiction having more urban disposal sites when regional opportunities exist," Rabanco's Razore said. "With the political fights that they have to go through to expand what they have or permit new ones, their disposal costs go up quite a bit, compared to the way it used to be."

Yet, siting a solid waste facility in a remote location may concern the waste-generating jurisdiction. For example, Snohomish County held a public hearing for a proposed rail haul system that would carry that community's waste to the Roosevelt Regional Landfill in Klickitat County.

"We were prepared for some to believe that we were shipping our problem to somebody else's back yard," said Kelley-Clarke of Snohomish County. This concern was minimized by Klickitat County's attitude. "It helped that Klickitat County was very eager for it," Kelley-Clarke reported. "There were some opponents, but for the most part, they saw it as additional jobs and revenue."

Siting the rail transfer facility is another obstacle for the local community. Snohomish County, for example, was concerned about the location of the rail facility. "While they were trying to site a new rail facility that was dedicated to their use, the communities came unglued in several cases," said Kelley-Clarke. "They felt like a garbage facility with odors and pollution was coming into their community and they didn't want to see that happen."

Rail-served landfills have provided jobs for other financially strapped rural communities. Fulton County, Ill., where BFI's Spoon Ridge landfill is located, was an economically disadvantaged community with lots of strip mines. The Village of Fairview, located in the county, annexed more than 995 acres for landfills.

For East Carbon, Utah, the development of the ECDC facility was an economic benefit. "The town where it is located is an area that was in need of some industry," said John Ward, an ECDC spokesperson. "Coal mines had closed down in the area. The local community has embraced this as a modern industry that brings economic development," he added.

For communities contemplating rail haul, it is essential to thoroughly study the pros and cons of this transportation and disposal method. "Get some good advice from somebody that's been through it," recommends Kelley-Clarke. "Find out from their experience what you will and will not want in a contract. Carefully look at costs and compare the costs to other disposal options. Try to get into a competitive situation because many communities are going to have a choice of more than one disposal company," he added.

Also look at the length of the commitment. The longer the commitment, the lower the price is going to be. Jurisdictions should be concerned that if they commit for too long a period, prices may drop as more rail served landfills open.

"[The proposal requires] a lot of nitty-gritty conversations to make sure that this arrangement will work on a timely, long-term, uninterrupted basis," said Razore. "This keeps the constituents at ease and ensures that the garbage won't stack up in their transfer stations and trucks."

Rail haul works efficiently if the waste volume is large, generated on a regular basis and the movement is between 300 to 500 miles. For Burlington Northern, the ideal train is between 80 and l00 cars, three days a week for unit train waste service. This is equivalent to between 2,000 and 2,500 tons of MSW per train.

"It's the intense utilization of the equipment that enables us to compete with trucks," said Barry Vann of Burlington Northern. Even with intense use of the rail equipment, fixed costs, such as equipment depreciation, and operating costs, such as lifting a container, do not vary over distance.

Therefore, the longer the distance the container travels, the lower the cost per mile. "At 300 miles, that fixed cost is spread over a greater distance," said Vann. "If you went under 150 miles, it would probably be very difficult." Even so, Vann theorizes that if a jurisdiction or company could get enough containers and the right labor agreement, the results might be surprising.

"As this industry gets more waste on rail, some of the equipment will be standardized," BFI's Landfill Market Development Manager, James Burnham, said. "I think that using rail to get to the Spoon Ridge landfill will make sense, and we're banking on it. The waste will find its route to an economical, safe disposal alternative. And if that's by rail, it's by rail."

"All the railroads have waste groups and are actively trying to expand it," said BN's Vann. "We've yet to see major moves of wastes, but I keep thinking that there will be absolutely huge movements of waste in the Los Angeles basin. But that may be further in the future."

"When the founders of ECDC first conceptualized this landfill several years ago, they did it with rail haul in mind," said Ward. "We certainly believe that it's a growth business, as evidenced by the fact that we've now invested over $50 million in the construction of the facility. If we did not believe in rail haul, we wouldn't have built this site large enough to operate for the next 40 or 50 years in central Utah."

"One mark of success in the garbage business is that people forget about you, because things go well," summarizes Kelley-Clarke. "To a large extent, the public forgets about waste export and rail haul in Snohomish County. That's a mark that it's being handled very well."

For John Ward of ECDC, the proof of a successful program is right at the railroad crossing. "It's fun for me to get stopped in Salt Lake City with the kids in the car and point at the containers and talk about what's inside," he notes. "The fact of the matter is that it looks like any ordinary train rumbling through town."

Moving wastes by rail requires a variety of handling equipment at the origination, transfer and disposal points.

Intermodal containers are available in 20-, 40- and 48-foot lengths. Railroads adopted the same dimensional and testing characteristics worldwide so that the containers can be used on rail or truck chassis.

"The term intermodal means you can use it on different modes of transportation," explained Bob Rasmussen, president of Accurate Industries. "The pieces are interchangeable just like Lego blocks. They fit together, using interbox connectors that can lock a couple together."

Different applications (ash, sewage sludge, contaminated soil or municipal solid wastes) warrant various configurations and seals to prevent leakage or flyaway materials.

Although most rail customers use intermodal containers, other methods are available. "We looked at putting it in coal cars several years ago," said Barry Vann of Burlington Northern. "In some situations, you might have a wood chip car, something where you could just dump into it. You wouldn't have the compaction costs or lift equipment, and if you had the right kind of facility at the other end, it might work too."

Even if direct dump into a rail car is feasible, issues of density and moving waste from the rail facility to the active landfill face must be addressed. A Utah facility owned by East Carbon Development Corp. uses a rotary dump system. With this method, the entire rail car is inverted to discharge the contents onto a tipping floor. Front loaders then load the contents into dump trucks before they are hauled to the landfill tipping face. As for compaction, Vann said, "You might be surprised at how much weight you'd get in [the wood chip car] if you stomp on it."

Highway weight limits are another factor. Federal highway laws limit truck weights to a maximum of 80,000 gross vehicle weight, including truck, trailer, container and payload. This limits a jurisdiction to roughly a 20- to 25-ton payload using intermodal.

Lifting equipment is necessary to move the containers from the truck to rail. Depending on the intermodal facility, either a fixed overhead crane or a wheeled lift vehicle, similar to a forklift, can be used. "What we try to do on a transfer station, if there is a road portion, is to have the container loaded onto a trailer at the intermodal railroad yard site," Rasmussen recommended. "The empty container is driven over to the transfer station, loaded while the container is still on the trailer, driven back to the rail and picked off with a top picker and put on the rail again."

Several methods can be used to load the container, including direct compaction. However, the containers must be sized to endure the internal pressures of packing the wastes.

As Snohomish County developed its waste export system, equipment compatibility became an issue. "You've got to make sure that all of your equipment matches up before the big day arrives and everyone is standing there watching, and then oops, it's six inches off," said Jeff Kelley-Clarke of Snohomish County. "If a jurisdiction wants a successful conversion, it must think through the equipment configurations. "You need to find a way to make the mechanical changes in advance. Make it flexible enough to deal with both systems until you have switched."

Where do you start when you're considering waste by rail? Remember: rail generally works best moving large quantities (200+ tpd), long-distances (200+ miles), with heavy products (1,300+ lbs./cu. yd.) and on long-term projects without seasonal variation. Consider these sources for advice:

* Railroad Companies. All major railroads have a department specifically for waste projects. The staff uses their waste industry experience to evaluate the economic and industrial development issues of projects and facilities.

Chances are that only one railroad is ideal for your origin or destination. Treat them like a partner. Tell them your proposal; the competitive economics; the minimum and maximum tonnages; project duration; average bulk density; the preferred origin and destination; and permit requirements.

The railroads can provide you with loading locations and suggestions for service frequency, connecting carriers and equipment and service providers with rail experience.

* Equipment Vendors. A number of equipment vendors are experienced in waste-by-rail. They've established relationships with the railroads, developed viable programs and technologies and familiarized themselves with transfer stations, public bidding, disposal sites, etc.

In addition, vendors have developed equipment and services specifically for solid and hazardous wastes. Still others provide equipment financing and unloading equipment for trailers at landfills and waste-to-energy plants.

* Consulting Firms. Specialist firms staffed with former railroad or waste industry employees can walk a company through the process of assembling a waste-by-rail project.

In the long-run, the proper advice can save you time and money.