Transportation: Rail

Brooke Wisdom

July 1, 2010

Rules for rail

The key to successful rail distribution is communication — with the railroads and with customers.

By Kerry Clines, Senior Editor

At Capitol Aggregates’ Marble Falls Quarry located in Marble Falls, Texas, 80 percent of the material processed at the plant is shipped out by rail. “Rail is more efficient and can move bigger volumes to where the market is,” says Scott Wolston, director of distribution at Capitol Aggregates.

A train filled with aggregate awaits the return of railroad personnel after leaving the pulpit loadout system at Capitol Aggregates’ Marble Falls Quarry.

Marble Falls Quarry was built to accommodate two types of railroads — Class 1s (Union Pacific and Burlington Northern) and the Austin Western shortline owned by Capital Metro, a transit organization based in the Austin, Texas, district.

“Our original plant design didn’t have a loop track,” says Brett Ballard, plant manager at Marble Falls Quarry. “In meetings with the Class 1 railroads, we found out that if we put in a loop track, put the right rail down, and had the right degree of loop, they would let us use their power (locomotive). That made us change our design and put the loop track in so we could use the Class 1 power.”

The plant moved the original location of the loadout and added conveyors to bring the material up from the plant. The loop track, also called a balloon track, allows a mile-long, 100-car train to enter the plant and load without blocking the entrance to the plant.

Loadout at the plant is all computerized. When the railcars are ready to load, the order is entered into the computer. Material is pulled from the tunnel running beneath the plant’s six different stockpiles, and it comes up the conveyor to loadout pre-blended. It takes about seven minutes for the material to travel from the stockpiles to the loadout.

“The system was designed with efficiency in mind,” Ballard says. “We load the rock at 2,500 tons per hour. We can load a railcar in less than 3 minutes and up to 20 cars an hour. We pull the train under the loadout, stop, start filling up the front of the car, then start creeping along until we’ve reached the tonnage we want. It’s all scaled and weighed by belt scales that are extremely accurate. It’s a very good system. We can load 100 cars in about six hours.”

It takes three people to load the railcars — one in the pulpit (loadout tower) who brings the material up and loads the train, one on the ground watching everything, and one in the locomotive. The three stay in constant communication via radio.

“If we’re doing a big unit train headed to Houston or east Texas where our markets are located, a 100-car unit usually requests the power be left on it,” Ballard says. “So, we can just drag it through and turn it back to them with the power. The shortline brings the cars to us, breaks their power off, and we use our own engines to push it through loadout. When we get off, they bring their power in and pull it out of the plant. The employees who operate the locomotives receive special training and certification.”

Capitol Aggregates has two distribution yards on the shortline — one in Seward Junction and one in Manor (both in Texas). At Seward Junction, there is a hot-mix plant and a ready-mix plant on site. At Manor, there is a hot-mix plant on site with future plans for a ready-mix plant on site. This type of set up lowers freight costs for those plants because their rock comes straight off the railcar.

“The industry is pretty open with what they’ve got,” Wolston says. “When we looked at the loadout system we’re using, we went to competitors who had the system and asked questions — what worked, what doesn’t work. Just like anything else, you try to learn from what other people do to improve the system.”

The key to successful rail distribution is communication — with the railroads and with customers. Ballard says meeting with the railroads before designing a plant is essential; it can help with efficiency and save time and money. Constant communication with the railroads after the plant is built keeps the trains moving in and out of the plant smoothly.

“It takes good communication to work with customers taking rail delivery — from loading the correct product to meeting the customers scheduled delivery time.” Wolston says. “We have to know what kind of material the customer wants and what tonnage he wants. We do a good job with our customers to get that information, and our customers do a good job with us.” AM

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