The Alaska Railroad is applying to become the nation’s first railroad system to ship natural gas by rail, a move that comes as the state looks for cheap ways to deliver the product to Fairbanks.
Alaska Railroad Corp. CEO Bill O’Leary told the Senate Finance Committee on Feb. 2 that the public corporation will apply this week with the Federal Railroad Administration to carry liquefied natural gas containers.
In 2011, U.S. railroad companies consumed a little over 3 billion gallons of diesel, nearly 5.5 percent of the total consumption for the entire country.
Oil is currently much more expensive than natural gas, which thanks to the shale boom, is at record low prices in the U.S. Switching engines to run on LNG instead of diesel is expected to help operators drastically cut their costs. Yet while most energy experts have predicted that LNG will not be ready for widespread consumption across the rail industry for a decade or more, Railway Age has stated that LNG powered locomotives will be common on U.S. railroads by 2016.
A lot is being written about reducing America’s dependence on foreign energy; and increased domestic exploration of crude oil and natural gas is paying meaningful dividends to railroads – and, by extension, to their workers, whose jobs, wages and benefits are being made more secure.
In North Dakota, where the Bakken Shale reserve is being drilled, some 450,000 barrels of crude oil daily are being pumped – so much that pipelines are at capacity and BNSF and Canadian Pacific (Soo Line) tank cars are originating up to 300,000 barrels of crude oil daily to refineries along the Gulf Coast. In fact, the state estimates that as drilling expands, railroads could be hauling as much as 700,000 barrels of the black gold in tank cars.
In western Canada, meanwhile, CP and Canadian National are hauling increased quantities of crude oil from the Alberta tar sands south across the border, destined to refineries along the Gulf Coast – a 1,700-mile rail route through Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.
Union Pacific, which is sharing in the southbound haul of crude oil, also reports sharp increases in drilling and construction materials headed north to the oil drilling fields. Kansas City Southern is gearing up for southbound loads of crude oil to Texas and Mexico, where new refinery terminals are under construction.
As for natural gas drilling, the Marcellus Shale field, stretching underground from Ohio to Pennsylvania and into West Virginia, is providing CSX and Norfolk Southern with sharp increases in carloads of sand, cement, drilling rig parts, chemicals, pipe and rock headed to the drillers. As natural gas drilling increases, even more carloads are in store for CSX and NS, which serve the Marcellus Shale region.
NS says it has quadrupled the number of carloads of materials headed to drillers, growing to a current 24,000 carloads annually in just two years, while CSX is hauling some 13,000 cars annually of materials to the drillers. There is also a smaller backhaul of waste and debris.
NS said it has hired – or is hiring – an additional 200 conductors to handle the increased business.
Then there is the growth of ethanol, which has soared from 2 billion gallons of production annually to 13 billion gallons of the past 10 years – much of it moving by rail. Federal law requires all gasoline to include a 10 percent blend of ethanol, and European nations are increasing their imports of ethanol from the U.S.