AS MAJOR U.S. CITIES FACE the closure of key regional landfills in the next dozen years, they may begin a large-scale move to waste-by-rail, the shipment of municipal solid waste (MSW) in railroad cars to distant landfills. “After 2009, chances are, we'll see more opportunities for larger MSW waste trains,” says Bob Wallace, director of transportation and logistics for the western group of Houston-based Waste Management Inc. (WM).

The change — still years away — will test the foresight of public and private waste management organizations. So the wheels of the waste-by-rail revolution are already turning in a number of cities. Waste Management, for example, provides waste-by-rail service for Seattle; New York; Beaumont, Texas; Annapolis, Md., and other cities.

With its 1998 acquisition of Rabanco, Allied Waste Industries Inc., of Scottsdale, Ariz., competes with Waste Management's waste-by-rail offerings. According to Allied's Web site, company-owned facilities have shipped more than 2.5 million tons of waste by rail since 1992.

Herzog Environmental Inc., a St. Joseph, Mo.-based subsidiary of a railroad construction and maintenance company, hauls waste by rail to its 1,300-acre landfill near Wagon Mound, N.M. Waste flowing into this facility comes from communities located in New Mexico, Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas.

Industry observers say that Waste Management and Allied provide the lion's share of waste-by-rail service. Even so, a handful of smaller companies, such as Herzog, have built substantial businesses in the category.

Chugging Along in Seattle

Seattle is among the first waste-by-rail users in the nation, having shipped its residential waste by railroad for more than 10 years. The city's decision to adopt a train — not truck — solution stemmed from disposal issues similar to those facing many U.S. cities today.

In the late 1980s, two landfills used by Seattle were approaching closure. When evaluating its disposal alternatives, the city explored sending its MSW to facilities operated by neighboring King County. However, Seattle residents objected to the idea because of high costs. Residents also opposed constructing a local waste-to-energy plants. So the city turned to the private disposal market and issued a request for proposal.

WM won the business with a plan that would ship waste by rail to the company's Arlington Landfill in Gilliam County, Ore., 330 miles away.

“Waste Management was selected primarily because of its existing permitted facility and the ability to handle transportation of solid waste by rail,” says Ed Steyh, Seattle's solid waste contract manager.

A key element of the deal was Gilliam County's attitude toward the plan. Seattle did not want to end up in a fight with a community that objected to disposing of another community's waste. Fortunately, Gilliam County liked the plan. County officials traveled to Seattle to express their interest in the revenue, jobs and property tax relief the plan offered.

By April 1991, four Seattle area transfer stations began delivering waste to a WM rail facility that operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The city supplies the tractors, chassis, and drivers for the truck portion of the trip. Waste Management supplies intermodal containers that are designed to ride in railroad cars. Union Pacific provides the rail transportation facilities.

The transfer to rail works like a well oiled machined. Waste collection trucks arrive at the transfer stations, which sort the waste from recyclable materials. The trash then is pre-loaded into a compactor that compresses the material into 35-foot long bales weighing 29 tons. A compactor arm pushes the bales into intermodal containers already positioned on the truck chassis. Each container holds one or two bales, depending on the density and weight. The trucks travel to the rail yard, where a top-pick crane, owned by the railroad, grabs the containers and deposits them in railroad well cars. Empty containers from the same train then are loaded back onto the trucks, which return to the transfer stations.

Between 50 and 60 cars make up Seattle's “unit” train, a designation that describes a waste train that receives all the trash it will carry at a single loading location. By contrast, a local waste train will pick up rail cars en route.

Union Pacific loads the Seattle unit train from 7 a.m. until the scheduled 3:30 p.m. departure. Waste Management coordinates procedures with the railroad and provides backup transportation by truck if the train fills up.

Waste Management also built an intermodal ramp at the Arlington Landfill to receive waste trains. A recent $7 million expansion has doubled the site's capabilities to handle three unit trains, equal to 200 or more rail cars, at a time.

The Seattle Waste Train pulls into Arlington at 7 a.m. every morning. At the ramp, a top pick crane removes the containers from the rail cars and places them on off-road trucks with heavy duty chassis. The trucks dray the containers up a 2-mile hill, tip them and return the containers to the waste train, which then heads back to Seattle.

Laying Tracks for the Future

Waste-by-rail costs more than most municipalities and residents are willing to pay for disposal today. In addition to tipping costs at transfer stations and landfills, waste-by-rail operators must charge for railhead infrastructures. The costs include $500,000 apiece for top pick cranes and about $125 per foot of installed railroad track. Labor costs related to specialized rail crews add to the total. Once the waste is loaded, rail transportation itself costs less than truck transportation. But infrastructure and labor push overall costs higher than conventional landfill disposal.

Yet despite the high costs, industry observers say that cities that hold disposal costs to artificially low levels today by using their own landfills will eventually face cost shocks as their landfills fill up; new landfills can't be permitted; and waste by rail becomes the only available alternative.

And the landfills are, indeed, filling up. Take the case of New York City. Since the closure of Fresh Kills Landfill, the city no longer disposes of any solid waste within its city limits. All of New York's waste is transported by truck, barge and rail outside of the city.

Since 1999, Waste Management's Bronx district has sent 30 train cars per day to Waste Management landfills in Virginia. Dubbed “The Bronx Express,” the train is loaded in a Waste Management transfer facility specially designed to load train cars directly from collection trucks. The transfers are carried out on a 60,000-square-foot tipping floor that can accommodate 40 to 50 garbage trucks at one time. Facility Manager Eddie Mullen says the operation processes 55,000 tons of waste per month, a fraction of the city's 12,000 tons per day of MSW.

According to the New York City Department of Sanitation, the city will eventually export all of its MSW by barge and rail.

L.A. Plans For Trash Trains

Los Angeles County is wrestling with the prospect of hauling its waste by rail as well. According to Joe Haworth, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts (LACSD), Los Angeles County has begun to plan for rail hauling. “LACSD will probably be the first to put trash on rail out of this basin,” Haworth says.

The force driving LACSD toward waste by rail emanates from the Puente Hills Landfill, the county's primary disposal site. Puente Hills accepts 13,000 tons of waste per day. Two other county landfills combine to take 3,000 tons per day. Another 3,000 tons goes to landfills owned by Orange County under an agreement with LACSD. A handful of private haulers handle the remaining 14,000 tons.

Nine years from now, in November 2013, Puente Hills will close. At that time, LACSD's carefully balanced division of labor will break down with the loss of 13,000 tons per day of disposal capacity. “Because it has become so difficult to find and permit new landfills, we have to evolve a rail haul capability over the next few years,” Haworth says.

The LACSD plan, still in the formative stages, likely will begin with the addition of rail haul facilities at a materials recovery facility (MRF) being constructed adjacent to the Puente Hills Landfill. A dirty MRF, this facility is permitted to handle 4,000 tons of refuse per day and will target mixed commercial refuse for separation and recycling.

“We estimate that you can pull 15 percent or more in recyclables out of commercial refuse,” Haworth says. “The problem is the MRF will cost $50 per ton compared to $20 per ton at the landfill next door. The first part of our plan is to level the costs by raising the charge for landfill disposal and reducing the charge for the MRF.”

If that plan works, the landfill and the MRF will combine to dispose of 17,000 tons per day. The MRF will not dispose of refuse at the landfill. Instead, the city will truck waste to rail-haul transfer facilities.

Eventually, LACSD hopes to regain control of its disposal options with the build-out of one, or possibly two, mega-landfill sites recently purchased by LACSD. The first is the Mesquite Regional Landfill in Imperial County in southeastern California. The second is the Eagle Mountain Landfill in Riverside County, located east of Los Angeles County. Each site is about 200 miles from Puente Hills.

“The idea is for the Puente Hills MRF to begin generating a revenue stream that can advance the infrastructure work that needs to be done at the Mesquite Landfill,” Haworth says.

But critical questions remain. With the Puente Hills MRF scheduled to open next year, will that facility attract enough tonnage to pay for itself and to help pay the construction costs at one or two mega waste-by-rail landfills? Haworth questions. What happens if LACSD builds-out the mega-landfills and then discovers that it is cheaper to rail haul to competing sites in Arizona or elsewhere? What if private companies step into the equation with cheaper prices?

LACSD must balance all of these concerns against the ironclad deadline for the closure of the Puente Hills landfill: In November of 2013, 13,000 tons of trash per day will have nowhere in Los Angeles County to go. And as with other communities like New York facing shrinking disposal space, waste-by-rail may be the county's only alternative.

Michael Fickes is Waste Age's business editor based in Cockeysville, Md.