Staying on Track

Transporting ethanol safely via rail begins at the ethanol plant or terminal.
By Ryan C. Christiansen / Story & Photos | September 08, 2008
In many cases, only the six or eight steel bolts that tighten the manway cover on a general service tank car stand between an ethanol producer with a perfect rail shipper safety record and the producer with a nonaccidental release (NAR) of ethanol on his hands. When an ethanol producer releases a tank car to the railroad, as the shipper, the producer is responsible for any NARs during shipment.

The Association of American Railroads defines a hazardous materials NAR as "the unintentional release of a hazardous material while in transportation (including loading and unloading) and doesn't involve an accident," including "leaks, splashes, and other releases from improperly secured or defective valves, fittings, and tank shells, and also includes venting of non-atmospheric gases from safety relief devices."

According to the AAR, the vast majority of reported NARs involve small quantities of a product. However, as ethanol rail shipments continue to increase, so do NARs, prompting ethanol producers and rail companies to work together to reverse the trend.

Ethanol Traffic Increasing
Across the board, Class I rail carriers in the United States and Canada are reporting that the upward trend in ethanol production and consumption has been a significant contributing factor to the overall increase in rail shipments of agricultural products from the Midwest to coastal destinations, especially to the Eastern United States.

According to the AAR, 85 percent of ethanol is shipped from the Midwest states of Illinois, Nebraska, Iowa, South Dakota, and Minnesota. Norfolk Southern Corp. reported moving more than a billion gallons of ethanol from plants west of the Mississippi to eastern destinations in 2007.

Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway earned a record $2.7 billion dollars in 2007 for shipping agricultural products. The railroad said that overall, shipments in the category increased by 6 percent, which included record levels of ethanol.

According to the AAR, railcar loads of ethanol in the United States increased from more than 25,000 in 2001 to almost 150,000 in 2007. The Federal Railroad Administration said that as of 2006, there were a total of 275,000 tank cars on the rails capable of hauling ethanol. According to American Railcar Industries, a tank car that is designed to carry ethanol can cost between $80,000 and $90,000.

Ethanol rail traffic is expected to continue to rise. According to the Renewable Fuels Association, the U.S. ethanol industry has 134 plants in 26 states that produced 6.5 billion gallons in 2007. The current overall capacity is 7.2 billion gallons. Meanwhile, 77 plants with a capacity of 6.2 billion gallons are under construction.

Investing in Infrastructure
To handle the increasing traffic, rail companies are investing more in infrastructure. Overall Class I railroad spending increased to an estimated $9.4 billion in 2007, up from $5.7 billion in 2002, according to the AAR. Union Pacific Corp., which links 23 states in the western two-thirds of the country, reported investing more than $1 billion in its overall railroad infrastructure, including the parts of its network that serve the ethanol-producing states of Iowa, Minnesota, and Nebraska. The company has dedicated part of its workforce to assisting ethanol producers with choosing locations for new ethanol plants and in developing the necessary rail infrastructure for those plants.

Ethanol Tops for NARs
If you were trainspotting somewhere near the nexus of Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota, you might think that the locomotives there were hauling primarily tank cars filled with ethanol and covered hoppers filled with corn or distillers grains. But to put things in perspective, ethanol comprises less than one-half of 1 percent of total rail traffic in the United States, according to the AAR. Despite this low profile, however, the shipment of ethanol in railcars continues to loom large on hazardous materials safety data charts.

Before shipping, ethanol is denatured with 2 percent to 5 percent natural gasoline to render the product undrinkable. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation Hazardous Materials Regulations, the shipping name for this mixture is "Alcohols, N.O.S.," meaning "alcohols, not otherwise specified." Alcohols, N.O.S. was the top commodity for cumulative NARs from 2005 to 2007.

There were 186 NARs for Alcohols, N.O.S. during the past three years, up from 126 during 2003 through 2005 when Alcohols, N.O.S. ranked third overall. The rise in NARs for Alcohols, N.O.S. is a "trend of interest," according to the AAR. The trend for Alcohols, N.O.S. is concerning at a time when the total number of NARs for all commodities is trending downward. There has been a 46 percent reduction in overall NARs for all commodities since 1996 and the total number of NARs each year leveled off at about 700 in 2004.

Unfortunately, there isn't just one bad apple spoiling the whole barrel. In 2007, 35 individual shippers had one NAR and 11 had multiple NARs. However, while the industry as a whole is taking a step back, some ethanol producers have been recognized for their rail safety practices. For example, BNSF's Annual Product Stewardship Award recognizes companies for the safe transportation of hazardous materials by rail. The ethanol producers who were recognized by BNSF for 2007 included Abengoa Bioenergy Trading U.S. LLC, AGP Corn Process Inc., Archer Daniels Midland Co., Big River Resources LLC, Chief Ethanol Fuels Inc., Chippewa Valley Ethanol Co., Glacial Lakes Energy LLC, Husker Ag LLC, KAAPA Ethanol LLC, Nebraska Energy LLC, Poet Ethanol Products, Red Tail Energy, Standard Ethanol, Trenton Agri Products LLC and VeraSun Energy Corp.

Loose Bolts to Blame
The manway cover on a general service tank car is primarily opened during loading and again to vent the tank during unloading, according to an AAR survey. Shippers use the visual gauge at the manway as the primary instrument for detecting the liquid level in the tank. There is a safety valve that will relieve internal pressure from the tank during shipment or in the unlikely event of a fire. Safety valves are typically mounted to a stand-alone safety valve nozzle, although they may be mounted to the fittings cover plate, as well. In 2007, the top specific cause for NARs for general service tank cars in ethanol service was loose manway cover bolts. Loose bottom-outlet valve caps, misapplied liquid product valve plugs and open liquid product valves were also significant contributors.

When tightening manway cover bolts, it is recommended that a star pattern is used and to make multiple passes through the bolts, increasing the torque with each pass until the desired torque is achieved. It is important to apply the recommended torque for each specific application and to use a torque wrench when doing so. The amount of torque required varies with the type and size of gasket being used, the size and number of bolts, and whether the bolts are lubricated or dry. Shippers should consult their tank car manufacturers or leasing companies for information about how much torque to use.

According to the AAR, while most shippers report using the star pattern when tightening manway cover bolts, more than half report not having a specific torque requirement for tightening the bolts.

Training is Available
The AAR routinely captures data concerning NARs in the United States and Canada. When a threshold number of incidents from a specific shipper are reached, the AAR notifies the company and asks for more information about follow-up actions the shipper is taking to address the causes of the NARs.

While ethanol producers are encouraged to have standard safety procedures and training in place, some rail companies provide training services.

Railcar leasing company GATX Rail, for example, offers GATX TankTrainer sessions, which include classroom instruction inside an air-conditioned boxcar, as well as hands-on instruction in, on and around the GATX TankTrainer tank car. GATX held four TankTrainer sessions July 15-16 at the Manly Terminal near Manly, Iowa, tailored specifically for people in the rapidly expanding biofuels industry. Most of the GATX tank car fleet is dedicated to hazardous materials service, which includes products ranging from ethanol and diesel fuel to liquefied petroleum gas and anhydrous ammonia.

Classroom instruction inside the GATX boxcar includes information about the anatomy of tank cars and important safety procedures and regulations. The classroom time is followed by a tour of the archetypical TankTrainer tank car, which includes the many styles of top valve arrangements, bottom outlet valves, and safety devices found on all types of tank cars. Students are invited to walk through the inside of the car's tank to see how the valves operate.

GATX has one TankTrainer unit and conducts approximately 15 trainings each year. Most of the classes are held at a customer location at the request of the customer. The TankTrainer program has been in operation since 1993.

The AAR's Non-Accident Release Reduction Program, meanwhile, has produced a video entitled "Getting to Zero," which is designed to impress upon those who load or unload hazardous materials in tank cars the importance of reducing NARs on rail. The video explains how NARs impact the safety of railroad workers, citizens along rail systems, the environment, a shipper's customers, and the loaders and unloaders themselves. The 10-minute video can be ordered from the following address: Association of American Railroads, Publications Department, 50 F Street N.W., Washington, D.C., 20001, or by calling (202) 639-2124.

Ryan C. Christiansen is an Ethanol Producer Magazine staff writer. Reach him at or (701) 373-8042.