Railroads Brace for More Trafficby Steve Brown
Capital Press, September 1, 2011
Oil Field Development Requires Shipments of Special Sand
SEATAC, Wash. -- A massive shale oil field in the northern Great Plains will likely increase rail traffic across the Pacific Northwest and benefit farmers who grow wheat and other crops, a shipping line representative says.
Oil companies plan to develop the shale oil field that stretches from northern Canada to Montana and into North Dakota and holds an estimated 3.65 billion barrels of oil reserves.
To do that, they will use a special type of sand called "frac sand" that comes from China. The sand, which is used to keep fractures in the rock open, will be shipped to
Northwest ports by ship and by rail car to the Great Plains.
Those cars and ships will then be available to ship ag products back to Northwest ports and on to China and Asia, Andrew Hemp, agricultural marketing representative for Maersk Line, said.
"It's the perfect driver" for two-way traffic, Hemp said.
The railroad is ready for the increased traffic, representatives said.
Robert Sender, the Seattle-based general director of transportation for the Northwest Division of Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, said railroads remain the best way to get ag products to port.
"We have a tremendous ability to get ag products over the Rocky Mountains, with westbound grades of 1 to 2 percent," he said. When those trains get to Sandpoint, Idaho, and Spokane, Wash., "big tonnage goes down the Columbia River, intermodal takes the northern route through Wenatchee, and the middle line through Ellensburg is a great opportunity for overflow traffic of normal-size boxcars and grain cars."
This provides plenty of capacity "as the economy keeps coming back," he said.
Greg Guthrie, director of marketing of ag products for Burlington Northern, said the company is expanding its bulk capacity, with 60 to 70 percent increase in elevator size and greater sophistication in handing to match the bigger ships becoming available in the next few years. The railroad is concentrating its growth on Portland and Seattle.
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