Rail executive sees synergies between shale and trains

By Elizabeth Skrapits (Staff Writer)
Published: October 15, 2010

Rail service called key to gas industry

Sand, pipe consumed in quantity

PLAINS TWP. – If natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale is going to prevail, it needs rail.

That was the message from transportation officials Thursday night during a gathering at Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs.

Todd Hunter, director of marketing for the North Shore Railroad, explained to members of the NEPA Logistics Club that gas companies are so far from their suppliers – and they are consuming commodities such as sand and pipe in such quantities – that rail service is going to be crucial.

“Without rail, shale fails,” he said, quoting Lycoming County transportation planner Mark Murawski.

Although Mr. Hunter lives and works in Williamsport, where natural gas development is exploding, he believes Northeast Pennsylvania, including Luzerne and Lackawanna counties, will eventually see increased activity, too.

“We just got started, folks,” Mr. Hunter said. “It’s a year or two away before this thing really gets rolling.”

Started in 1984, North Shore Railroad has six lines and 240 miles of track in northern and central Pennsylvania, 90 employees – it is hiring more – 24 locomotives of its own and has leased two more to keep up with demand, Mr. Hunter said.

The railway had experienced growth prior to the development of the Marcellus Shale, but “the rush started for us in August 2008,” he said.

At that time, the North Shore Railroad moved its first carload of frack sand. Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” involves blasting millions of gallons of water thousands of feet underground to crack the shale and release the gas. Sand is added to the water to prop the cracks open, allowing the gas to flow more freely.

Since 2008, the North Shore has added five active frack sand terminals – three of which are being expanded – three active terminals for pipe, two gas field heavy haulers and a loader for brine water, Mr. Hunter said.

Further impacts on the North Shore include 13 new rail facilities in various stages of completion; rail service hours and days expanded to include evenings, weekends and holidays; and new track switches added – 17 in 2010 alone, he said.

With growth, however, there also will be challenges. Mr. Hunter noted that there are few rail-ready, properly zoned properties in the Marcellus drilling area. Other hurdles will include getting sufficient rail capacity, finding qualified employees and complaints about train horns and other issues during off-hours, he said.

As well, gas companies from other parts of the country, such as Texas and Oklahoma, may not realize that Pennsylvania’s mountainous terrain can make rail more desirable than roads for fast transit.

Mr. Hunter related how a man from one gas company told him, “You know, in Texas, 60 miles is 60 minutes. In Pennsylvania, 60 miles can be six hours.”

“We’ve come up with a saying in Williamsport: ‘This isn’t … Texas,’” Mr. Hunter said.

Besides the talk by Mr. Hunter, Lawrence Malski of Clarks Summit, president of Pennsylvania Northeast Regional Rail Authority, received the Harry Duckworth Award for Excellence in Logistics.

Mr. Malski mentioned the growth the authority has experienced since 1985: its network has increased to more than 100 miles and has induced 11 new industries to locate around the region. With the opportunities presented by the Marcellus Shale, he is sure it will expand further.

Regarding passenger service, Mr. Malski said the rail authority did not receive the “major chunk” of federal funding it was hoping for to establish a high-speed rail line from Scranton to metro New York, but noted that perseverance is key.

“Like everything, it’s ups and it’s downs,” he said, adding that it is a down time for government funding.

Contact the writer: eskrapits@citizensvoice.com

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Copyright:  The Scranton Times