Friday, December 06, 2013

Northwest short line serves new grain loop

Written by 
Northwest short line serves new grain loop Bruce Kelly

Just in time for the 2013 wheat harvest, a new grain train loop facility opened for business in September at McCoy, Wash.

Located on short line Washington & Idaho Railway (WIR) 35 miles south of Spokane, the McCoy Grain Terminal brings much-improved rail service to the heart of a highly-productive wheat-growing area. McCoy can receive 40,000 bushels per hour from incoming trains or trucks, store up to 1.3 million bushels on site, and load 60,000 bushels per hour into outgoing trains. Translation: just under 9 hours to load a 110-car train.

WIR will move loaded grain trains from McCoy north 31 miles to a BNSF connection at Marshall, Wash. BNSF Director of Corporate Communications Amy Casas told Railway Age, "This shuttle origin [McCoy] provides area producers access to the most cost-effective, operationally-efficient service product the railroad offers."

An important consideration during planning for McCoy was terrain. Eastern Washington's hilly Palouse region – where elevation, climate, and nutrient-rich soil generate high yields of wheat and barley without irrigation – forced railroad builders in the late 1800s to lay track on a hill-and-dale profile that resembled a rollercoaster linking one farm town to the next.

WIR operates the largest surviving segment of what remains from the once-sprawling network of Palouse branch lines. McCoy was deemed the most suitable site for a grain loop on WIR. However, WIR's existing route through McCoy has a grade of just over 1%. BNSF standards for unit train loop tracks normally specify a maximum of 0.5%.

Says BNSF's Casas, "BNSF worked closely with the customer and incorporated the geographic/topographic challenges of the area into the track design and operations to meet our shuttle guidelines." Engineering firm HDR, Inc., designed the McCoy loop track and oversaw construction to meet those guidelines.

Unit grain train loops are an increasingly common site adjacent to main lines and branches of Class I carriers. But they're still a rarity among short lines. In 2008, WIR made its first attempts to bring unit train efficiency and cost savings to its customers by receiving 110-car trains from BNSF and distributing the empty hoppers in large blocks to two or more conventional loading sites. Now, WIR can gather random grain loads from those less-efficient elevators, shuttle them to McCoy, and reload everything into BNSF unit trains.

More than 80% of Washington wheat is exported via Northwest ports. Much of that wheat travels west in barges on the Snake and Columbia rivers, including wheat that's been shuttled to riverside barge terminals by local rail service. Pacific Northwest Farmers Cooperative and Cooperative Agricultural Producers jointly funded the $17-million McCoy Terminal.

Both companies have a stake in the region's barge service as well, and plan to balance their use of rail and barge strategically. The Washington Association of Wheat Growers predicts that the McCoy Terminal will allow grain shipments off the WIR "to go from the current level of about 2,100 railcars per year to more than 6,000 per year."