AUGUST 2010
                                        

Trains derail dependance on trash trucks in Northeastern United States Click to Enlarge - Artist rendering of rail yard currently under construction by Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts. Puente Hills MRF (far right) has a dedicated access road to bring loaded waste containers to a rail yard and retrieve empties.
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The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has authorized $118 million dollars for the purchase and major improvements to the 100 year old Greenville Rail Yards in Jersey City, New Jersey. When completed, this barge-rail link will carry solid waste across New York Harbor in sealed containers between Brooklyn and Jersey City.

The plan is projected to remove 360,000 garbage trucks per year from trans-Hudson River roads, bridges and tunnels. “The board just approved it so we are still working on the property acquisition. It is scheduled to be completed and open for business by 2013,” said Steve Coleman, a spokesman for the port authority.

From Jersey City, via Norfolk Southern Railway and CSX, cars loaded with waste can then be railroaded long distances to landfills, thereby cutting highway traffic and road wear. The trash can be offloaded at landfills actually bidding for the business in states as far away as Ohio and South Carolina. This makes a winning concept for New York-New Jersey highway congestions and one example of why rail is a growing alternative for solid waste disposal.


Riding the rails for solid waste makes sense for many communities if they have rail access and can site a waste transfer station to load waste to rail without causing traffic, and odor problems for people living near them. “Siting any facility these days is a problem, but sighting a waste management facility is especially tough if it’s going to be publicly owned, whether it’s a rail-haul, transfer station or a truck haul. A recent transfer station by a town in North Carolina ended without success because of political and other issues,” said Jeremy O’Brien, director of applied research at the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA).

Combining loads from several trash trucks into one rail car or shipping containers for long distance transport to remote landfills is one answer that makes sense for many cities – those faced with shrinking local landfill capacity. “Historically, there’s been a significant growth in rail haul over last 20 years, but it has not taken over,” said O’Brien. “From my experience, I would say there are only about 10 to 20 places around the country where it’s being done.”

Republic uses a stanchion-mounted excavator to unload gondola railcars at Niagara Falls Landfill in        Buffalo, New York.

Rail versus trucking cost conundrum

CSX Railroad touts in its advertising – “Trains can move a ton of freight 423 miles on one gallon of diesel fuel.” This, of course, depends on what class of tonnage at what rate is being moved and how far. This hyperbolic claim is obviously an extreme example to show that train transport over long distances is cheaper than trucking.

But all the comparisons of rail versus truck transport costs go out the window when it comes to moving municipal solid waste by rail. It’s done on a case by case basis. Kristi Small, manager of rail and logistics operations at Republic Services provided insight as to how rates are established with railroads – “We tell them our origin and destination, and how many tons we plan to ship per day. Then we start negotiating the transportation rate. Often one railroad doesn’t handle the entire move, you are on multiple lines, involving short line railroads to get to your destination, many times crossing state lines. From my experience, most rates are negotiated by the car type and volume commitment, then the waste stream commodity is confirmed.”

While the actual rail transportation rate is a major cost consideration, the transfer infrastructure and labor costs at both ends of the line have to make economic sense. Republic, which is one of the largest nationwide waste handling companies, employs several transfer strategies. The oldest, most basic are open-topped (sometimes covered) gondola cars conventionally loaded, often compacted at the point of origin and machine excavated from the car at point of destination, loaded into rubber-tired vehicles for movement to the working face of the landfill. In Price, Utah, Republic operates one of the few rotary gondola car systems in the country. Only a few exist because of the large infrastructure costs involved. In the rotary operation, cars are disconnected from the train, and the tracks along with the railcar are rotated to empty contents onto a tipping floor similar to a transfer station. The waste is loaded into articulated dump trucks for landfilling. The emptied car and tracks are realigned with the train and the next car moves into position to be handled.

Intermodal containerization of waste continues to grow due to its logistical flexibility and the sanitary benefits of containing litter, odor and leakage. At the Travis Rail Yard in Staten Island, New York, Republic uses an AMFAB compactor that creates a load of waste that is compressed to fit the rail container. “It’s a very clean operation for loading 20 foot containers that carry on average 20 tons of municipal solid waste,” said Small. From Staten Island, these containers travel 993 miles to a landfill in South Carolina.

Tighter regulations and shrinking landfills

O’Brien attributed the significant growth since the early 1990s to Subtitle D landfill regulations of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) when as a nation we went from local, more publicly owned landfills, to larger more regional and mostly privately held landfills. “We went from about 10,000 solid waste landfills in the early 1990s to about 1,600 today.”

City and suburban landfills are not only fewer, but also filling up faster and building a new one in a populated area these days is virtually impossible. Beside a local solid waste-to-energy (WTE) solution, city planners and sanitation districts are facing longer hauls, either by truck or by rail.

Los Angeles County waste-by-rail

Beginning the late 1980s, the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts (LACSD) along with other public agencies, began studying ways to cope with a projected shortfall in local solid waste landfill capacity. LACSD operate a comprehensive solid waste management system serving the needs of a large portion of Los Angeles County. This system includes sanitary landfills, recycle centers, and materials recovery/transfer facilities.

As planning for disposal capacity proceeded, public opposition grew to siting new or expanding existing landfills in Los Angeles Basin. Sites farther away began to look more desirable despite higher costs for longer transport distances. “We projected we would need more remote disposal sites. A study was done as to the breaking point where it was no longer economical to haul waste by truck and it’s right around 200 miles,” said Connie Christian, LACSD senior project engineer.

All these factors convinced LACSD to start building an ambitious, integrated system of local and remote infrastructure called “Waste-by-Rail.”

“A lot of the planning is based on having capacity available if it’s needed to field the shortfall from the closure of our Puente Hills Landfill in November of 2013,” said Christian. Owned and operated by LACSD, Puente Hills is located in Whittier, California and is currently the largest landfill in the country permitted to accept approximately 13,000 tons per day.

When the Puente Hills materials recovery facility (MRF) was built in 2005, it was designed with a tipping room floor that allowed for overhead loading of containers destined for rail shipment. Waste is delivered to the MRF and sorted for recyclable material, the residual material is placed in containers parked under the tipping floor which will be compacted, sealed and trucked a short distance to the rail loading yard.

Last year, LACSD completed construction of the key component of its waste-by-rail system, the new Mesquite Regional Landfill in Imperial County, California. It’s operational, but no waste is being delivered as of this writing.

Located approximately 200 miles from the Puente Hills MRF, Mesquite Regional Landfill is permitted to accept 20,000 tons per day mostly delivered by rail from outside Imperial County. It can accept deliveries from within Imperial County, but that has not occurred primarily because Imperial does not generate a large volume at this time. (Imperial, located in the southeast corner of the state bordering Arizona and Mexico is 4,482 square miles with a population of 165,000).

The Mesquite Regional Landfill and the Puente Hills MRF are both close to the Union Pacific Railroad (UPRR) mainline. LACSD is currently constructing a dedicated subsurface access road under a county road and UPRR railroad tracks to allow direct off street access between the Puente Hills MRF and the new rail yard under construction. Other MRFs may also send containers to the rail yard.

LACSD’s new rail yard has been under construction since late 2009 and is scheduled for completion in mid 2012. The project consists of three-miles of staging tracks on the UPRR right of way, a 17 acre rail yard, and all the necessary equipment to maintain and load 40 foot containers on and off rail cars. When it becomes operational, plans call for up to two trains per day carrying a total of approximately 8,000 tons of refuse.

At the Mesquite Regional Landfill, the rail spur and rail yard is under construction and will be similar to the Puente Hills rail yard. Containers will be hauled by truck from the local rail yard to the landfill face for unloading

Mesquite has a total estimated capacity of 600 million tons and will be equipped with a gas recovery system.

“Today there is enough capacity within the county. There are a lot of variables to the amount of waste being disposed and we have seen tonnage fluctuates with market conditions.” Christian noted.

The LACSD waste-by-rail system is expected to cost approximately $500 million dollars.

Short-haul rail solutions

While long hauls of solid waste by rail may be the future for the dwindling landfill capacities of urban areas such as New York and Los Angeles, shorter rail routes to waste-to-energy (WTE) plants can also reduce waste highway traffic as well as provide renewable energy.

For example, Montgomery County, Maryland’s resource recovery facility began commercial operation in 1995. This WTE plant processes an average of 1,500 tons per day of solid waste that generates up to 55 megawatts of renewable energy. All the waste feeding the plant is shipped by rail from only 22 miles away, but rail delivery virtually eliminated waste truck traffic on the roads associated with the facility. For Montgomery County, located just north of Washington, D.C. and southwest of Baltimore, reducing traffic is a high priority.

All the waste destined for the plant arrives by truck at a transfer station in Derwood, Maryland, compacted into intermodal steel containers and loaded onto railcars with gantry cranes. Each day CSX assembles a train that makes the 22 mile trip to the resource recovery facility that is located in Dickerson, Maryland. There the containers are off-loaded at the on site rail yard and trucked to the plant’s enclosed refuse building for processing and energy recovery. Residue from the WTE process is loaded into sealed containers and shipped by rail to a landfill located in Brunswick, Virginia.

The bottom line for waste by train

When weighing the total costs and environmental impact of rail transport against trucking solid waste, a universe of related factors must be evaluated including fuel costs, emissions, local road and highway congestion, pavement wear and tear, safety and land use, just to mention a few.

While estimates differ, trains are roughly three times more fuel-efficient than trucks and release fewer emissions. At the same time, trucks are becoming more fuel efficient and emit fewer pollutants. Proposals like the Pickens Plan may emerge to transition diesel powered trucks to natural gas that burns cleaner and could become price competitive with diesel fuel. Trucks are also flexible to changing route needs and can easily move to landfills offering the most attractive locations or lowest tipping fees.

Private companies operating waste-to-rail transfer stations usually operate more efficiently than government agencies and can respond faster to market demands.

As we have seen from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts projects, investments of hundreds of millions are required to build dedicated infrastructure. For large, dense metropolitan areas it appears that waste-by-rail to the boondocks, or local rail to waste-to-energy plants is the in the offing.

In the end, taxpayers foot the bill for waste disposal and their voices will be heard loud and clear whenever the subject of trucking versus rail comes to the floor for debate. There are sound arguments for both sides.