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by Angela Cotey, associate editor
Each year, railroads replace tens of millions of crossties. Tie replacement strategies, especially for Class Is, are well thought-out as railroads continually work to maintain their extensive networks. But railroads also need to determine how they'll get rid of their old ties. Tie disposal represents a major challenge for railroads — logistically, monetarily and, these days especially, environmentally. For help, some railroads and transit agencies turn to tie and pole removal contractors to help ease their disposal burdens.
"As the Obama Administration looks at saving the environment, this will become a bigger and more costly issue," says Vinnie Vaccarello, co-president of ARS Corp., which provides a range of maintenance-of-way services for railroads, including tie and pole disposal. "Also, with the positive train control mandate, railroads are working now to get pole lines cleared and ties picked up so they can put PTC equipment along the tracks."
As a result, ARS has noticed an uptick in business lately. The company uses several different processes to remove or dispose of ties, such as sending them to a landfill, crushing or chipping the ties onsite and selling the aggregate, or burning wood ties onsite with a mobile incinerator.
"Typically, contractors come around and pick up ties behind the tie gangs that take them out," says Vaccarello. "Good ties are sorted and sold for landscape ties and used crossties. Or, they're sold for relay ties on short lines or other railroads. The wasted ties are loaded up and shipped to a chipping facility and used as a fuel source."
ARS removes and disposes of poles, as well. The company is set up for large-scale projects, but also will do smaller projects, says Vaccarello, adding that the contractor works mostly with Class Is and transit agencies.
The company offers its customers a lump-sum price, per-tie or per-pole line price, or a per-mile price.
"It depends on volume — if you have 400,000 ties or 4,000 ties, that's going to make the difference," says Vaccarello. "Everything boils down to cost."
Tangent Rail Corp. provides tie disposal services, as well, and will dispose of poles as long as they are creosote-treated, says Executive Vice President Rob Matthews.
"A lot of poles are treated with other materials that tend to be nastier and not many places are permitted to burn them," he says.
In January, Stella-Jones Inc. signed a letter of intent to acquire Tangent Rail. Stella-Jones likely will keep Tangent Rail's tie disposal unit, says Matthews.
The company provides tie disposal services predominantly for Class Is. Tangent Rail picks up ties as they are removed from the right of way and ships them to one of its plants. There, the ties are shredded and turned into boiler fuel, which is used by co-generation facilities to make industrial steam or steam that can be put back into an electrical grid, a network that delivers electricity from suppliers to consumers.
"More and more of these old coal plants are being converted to burn wood products, so we deal with them and with paper mills," says Matthews.
Koppers Inc. burns creosote-treated wood ties and pole lines at its own co-generation facility in Muncy, Pa. The facility was built in 1988, when the wood tie supplier entered into a partnership with Conrail to ship new ties to the railroad. In turn, Conrail would ship the old ties back to Koppers to be burned and used for electricity for Pennsylvania Power and Light, says Gary Ambrose, general manager of Koppers' Commercial Railroad Products & Services division.
Today, Koppers burns ties for Canadian Pacific, CSX Transportation, and numerous short lines and contractors located throughout the Northeast and mid-Atlantic regions. Koppers uses the steam from the tie-burning process to make new crossties and puts the remainder onto the grid, says Ambrose.
The company burns ties for other contractors' customers, as well. Railroad Construction Co. of South Jersey and Ray's Transportation Inc. have contracts with Koppers under which the firms ship their customers' used ties to Koppers to be burned at the co-generation facility. Ray's Transportation currently has long-term tie disposal contracts with Amtrak, MTA Metro-North Railroad and MTA Long Island Rail Road; Railroad Construction Co. typically does work for smaller railroads and industrial customers.
"The larger railroads have contracts for hundreds of thousands of ties; we don't have that quantity," says Railroad Construction Co. President James Daloisio.
Although tie disposal isn't a large part of the company's business, it typically goes hand-in-hand with the tie replacement services that Railroad Construction Co. offers.
"We'll bring old ties back to our yard and sort them and grade them — good relay, or landscape grade, and the rest go into two categories: ones that are burnable get sent up to Koppers' recycling plant," says Daloisio. "The crumbled ties get sent to a construction debris landfill here in New Jersey."
Railroad Construction Co. isn't located very far from Koppers' co-generation facility, which helps the company keep tie disposal costs down, says Daloisio. Other companies aren't as fortunate.
"Used ties are scattered throughout North America, and you have to gather them up and transport them to a disposal facility," says Tangent Rail's Matthews. "Most co-gen operations are in areas that are already equipped to burn wood products, concentrated in areas with a strong forestry industry. But if you get out into, say, the Great Plains, not too many people are equipped to handle this sort of fuel, and you have a logistical issue."
The transportation costs can make tie disposal more costly for railroads. So can track time availability.
"Often times, you're not able to get spent ties taken away at the same time you're putting in the new ones — there's not enough track time. So you have to move it off the right of way to an area where you can later come back and load them onto rail cars or trucks," says Koppers' Ambrose. "Every time you handle that tie, that adds cost to it."
But the biggest factor that can increase tie disposal costs is liability, says ARS' Vaccarello. Old creosote-treated ties have to be disposed of in an environmentally sensitive manner. If they're not, and if an environmental issue arises (for example, if old ties wind up in a farmer's pond), railroads could face a lawsuit since they're the ones that owned the ties, says Vaccarello.
"That's what will rear its head first as new environmental laws come out — railroads will become more accountable when disposing of ties, poles or really any material," he says. "Railroads want a manifested disposal, or cradle-to-grave, to know exactly where their pole lines or ties went."