Loop Track Comeback

FROM THE NOVEMBER ISSUE: On-site rail loops at ethanol plants have regained some of their former popularity in the past year, increasing efficiency and market access.
By Keith Loria | October 16, 2017

Glacial Lakes Energy LLC in Watertown, South Dakota, added a four-track rail loop earlier this year, allowing the switch from manifest shipments to unit trains. The loop can accommodate four full unit trains and, in partnership with a new double loadout station and additional storage, the upgrades are enabling massive efficiency gains at the 60 MMgy plant.

“This now allows us to ship all of our ethanol and DDGS by unit train, gaining more lucrative access to export markets and other markets only accepting products supplied by unit train deliveries,” says Pat Hogan, Glacial Lakes Energy’s director of operations. “Before we did the rail, we had a small ladder track system, a single loadout and we shipped all of our ethanol rail cars as manifest shipments, which means they went out in blocks of five, 10, 20 cars at a time.”

With the new rail improvements, Glacial Lakes Energy has seen better shipment times and returns. “It gives us better access to unit destinations and better market access,” Hogan says. “We were aware of a couple of plants that had transitioned to rail loops and the buzz in the industry is that this is the future of rail transportation.”

Loading Efficiency
Richard Carney, senior vice president-North America track for New York-based RailWorks Corp., a track and transit systems construction and maintenance service provider, notes rail loops increase efficiency in unit train storage and the unloading and loading processes.

“Essentially, you are loading and unloading the cars on the same track,” he says. “About five years ago, rail loops at ethanol facilities were a really hot market, but it tapered off. Now, it’s something that has been reinvigorated in the last 12 months.”

Brett Porter, general director for ethanol products at BNSF Railway in Fort Worth, Texas, says loop tracks are a more effective solution than manifest shipments for receiving and departing trains from a railroad’s mainlines. At ethanol plants, a rail loop eliminates the need to couple and re-couple cars while loading, which is safer for the employees and more efficient for operation.

“Loop tracks can be a good alternative when you need a 7,000-foot strip of land for a track to receive and depart unit trains of 96-plus railcars,” Porter says. “If you are expanding track at a plant that has road crossings or other barriers like hills and water nearby, a loop track in an adjacent field may be the best alternative for track expansion.” Porter says recent BNSF ethanol customers have opted for a rail loop to avoid such obstacles, or because the land available suits the expansion. 

“The loop method was created for model efficiency,” says Reed Reimer, vice president of business development for R&R Contracting. Loops allow the railroad to leave its locomotive connected to the entire unit train, loading while pulling the train in one direction, he says. 

R&R Contracting recently worked on a loop expansion project in South Dakota and is currently installing loops at an ethanol plant in Beaumont, Texas. “The best method to ship is pipeline but there’s only one endpoint and they can’t reroute or change delivery,” Reimer says. “Trucking is not a viable solution because of the budget. Rail just makes the most sense.”

Implementing Rail Loops
When designing and constructing rail loops, it’s important to make a loop track big enough to handle the entire train in a single pass without breaking the train up, Carney says. It’s crucial for efficiency.
Porter notes that ethanol plants are essentially two or three separate rail car loading operations—ethanol, distillers grains and inbound corn. They each need to operate separately for best efficiency, and to plan a track layout, a company needs to understand the loading pattern for ethanol and distillers grains. “This needs to be taken into account when the arrival/departure track is designed,” he says. “The track will need to be designed in a manner that provides room for the plant to continue loading rail cars while trains arrive and depart. If it is a location that also receives inbound grain, it adds additional complexity to the project.”

RailWorks recently constructed a 15,000-foot, double-loop track for KAAPA Ethanol Ravenna LLC in Ravenna, Nebraska. The track has nine turnouts, which accommodate two unit trains simultaneously to ensure continuous shipment and production.

More Markets
The consensus among experts and plant operation managers is that unit trains help ethanol plants move their products efficiently, open new markets and provide competitive access to existing markets.
“Most destination markets with population densities and export capability have converted into unit trains, and supply chains—including transportation and terminal and storage facilities—are adapting accordingly,” Porter says. “Currently, 70 percent of the ethanol moving on BNSF moves on unit trains, and we expect this percentage to continue to grow as export markets expand and as more destination markets convert to unit trains.”

Author: Keith Loria
Freelance Journalist