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October 2022

Rail News: MOW

With an eye on 2023, wood-tie suppliers discuss current market trends

Next year will be “a big year for producers,” especially if winter does not bring record rainfall, said Railway Tie Association Executive Director Nathan Irby.
Photo – Railway Tie Association


By Michael Popke

No industry, it seems, has been able to escape supply shortages of late. Including the wood segment of the crosstie business. As the Railway Tie Association noted in its midyear purchases report, “production continued in its declining trend, though the rate of decline slowed down.” 

Wood-tie producers have struggled to procure ties, as hardwood lumber — such as grade lumber, wood for flooring and pallet stock — has been the preferred sawing solutions for sawmills, said RTA Executive Director Nathan Irby in an email.  

“Accordingly, wood-tie production has been marginalized, and with railroad purchases outpacing product, inventory levels are quite low,” Irby said. 

The good news? Since June, sawmills have increased their tie-cutting production throughout the United States. The bad news? Production is still slightly stunted, due to labor inconsistencies, supply-chain disruptions for parts and equipment, and trucking woes, Irby said.  

“I postulate railroad wood-tie demand will be strong for the next 12 to 18 months, as tie inventories are too low, production has grossly under-paced purchases, and the constrained sawmill output cannot satisfy the needs before that window of time,” he said.  

Irby declared 2023 will be “a big year for producers” — especially if winter does not bring record rainfall. 

Wood-tie suppliers and treaters tend to agree. Progressive Railroading recently reached out to a sampling of them to gauge their take on 2022 developments and their outlook for the year to come. Edited versions of their emailed responses follow.  

Koppers Inc. is the largest provider of pressure-treated crossties to Class Is, company officials said.
Koppers Inc.

Koppers: Surviving 2022’s ‘stress test’  

Sales are up so far this year for Koppers Inc. Demand for the company’s wood ties remains solid and the supplier is optimistic about future growth opportunities based on longer-term market trends, said Koppers Director of Class I Sales John McDonald.  

“As we turn the corner to the second half of 2022, we are seeing market pricing stabilize and procurement activities tracking at a much healthier pace,” he said, adding that Koppers is expanding capacity to meet growing demand. “We are very excited about our state-of-the-art treating facility in North Little Rock, Arkansas, which will be fully operational by year’s end.”  

Additionally, Koppers is trying to aggressively evaluate all opportunities to expand its North American footprint. For example, McDonald points to the evolution of Koppers Recovery Resources, a division that recovers used ties at the end of their useful life and converts the material into a renewable fuel source.  

Meanwhile, Koppers Railroad Structures has garnered attention from railroads seeking cost-effective repair methods while minimizing traffic interruptions.  

“As supply challenges continue to be resolved, we are well positioned to provide the treating time necessary to meet the growing demand for crossties,” McDonald said. “As a vertically integrated supplier of creosote, Koppers offers surety of supply in order to serve our customers in the most effective manner. All signs point to a strong 2023 for an industry that has been put through the stress test of 2022.” 

Stella-Jones: Implementing robotic stackers  

Robotic tie stackers — such as this one at a Stella-Jones facility in Bangor, Wisconsin — improve efficiency, employee safety and stack stability, company officials said.
Stella-Jones Inc.

Supply-chain issues impacted Stella-Jones Inc.’s procurement of green ties needed to refresh the company’s air-dried inventories, said George Caric, the company’s vice president of marketing.  

“Sawmill production has been negatively impacted by post-COVID issues involving labor, high fuel prices, and supply chain issues regarding parts and equipment,” he said. “The past 18 months have been really hard on our producers, with labor and fiber shortages. We are just starting to see tie production pick up in most areas.” 

Coinciding with the uptick, Stella-Jones continues to seek ways to ensure it has ties available.  

“We are working with the University of Tennessee, looking at borate-treated yellow poplar as a good species for ties,” Caric said. “Yellow poplar is abundant but not as strong as some of the mixed hardwoods being used [for ties]. However, dipping in borate and air drying has proven to strengthen the wood and [make it] capable of being used in low-density lines.”  

The company also claims to be the first in the wood-tie industry to install robotic tie stackers in plants to help reduce accidents; the plan is to eventually install the stackers at all Stella-Jones tie-treating facilities, Caric said. 

Meanwhile, Class I tie demand has remained strong all year, with particular interest in pre-plated bridge ties — a market segment Caric predicts will remain strong for at least the next couple of years, in part because of the time-saving installation process.  

“We hope to see a big finish to the year in terms of green production and [building] back our air-dried inventories,” he said. “The demand is there; there are many projects on the books for new business as companies look to put more business on the railroads.” 

Nisus: Double-digit growth in treatment usage 

Shown: a stack of yellow poplar ties seasoning after being dip-treated with Cellu-Treat®.
Nisus Corp.

Demand is strong in the wood preservation industry, too. Nisus Corp. officials are reporting increased use of both the company’s Cellu-Treat® dip treatment prior to air seasoning, as well as QNAP® copper naphthenate during the pressure treatment of crossties and bridge ties. They’ve also noted “a steady uptick” in the use of the BTX® Bridge Tie Treatment System to dual-treat green bridge ties with Cellu-Treat and QNAP, said Ken Laughlin, Nisus’ division vice president for wood preservation. 

“We have continued to increase our production of QNAP copper naphthenate oil-borne preservative and Cellu-Treat, a liquid disodium octaborate tetrahydrate,” he added. “There are also two new treatments plants that have begun dip-treating with Cellu-Treat before air-seasoning in 2022, and we’re anticipating that an additional two plants will begin pressure-treating ties with QNAP by the end of the year.” 

Meanwhile, Nisus officials are excited about a new application method that involves remedial treatment of bridge ties in the field with borate.  

“By drilling reservoirs into bridge ties that have already been laid, we’re able to fill them with Cellu-Treat and then seal those reservoirs with BTX plugs,” Laughlin said. “Those reservoirs allow borates to diffuse through the wood and add that protection against corrosion, decay and insect damage that borates are so well-known for.”  

Like Stella-Jones, Nisus also has worked with University of Tennessee researchers, conducting strength testing on borate-treated yellow poplar ties.  

“When it became clear that the railroads and sawmills were struggling with green tie supply issues during the first stages of the pandemic, we began researching alternatives that could help alleviate those pressures for our railroad customers,” Laughlin said. “We found that when yellow poplar ties were dip-treated in Cellu-Treat before air seasoning, the resulting ties were stronger than untreated gum ties.” 

Michael Popke is a Madison, Wisconsin-based freelance writer. Email comments or questions to

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