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Marcellus pushes boom in regional short line rail traffic

Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
A railroad track running along a neighborhood in Carnegie on Thursday, November 15, 2012.

Friday, Nov. 16, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
 

At Allegheny Valley Railroad's Glenwood Yard in Hazelwood, train tracks laid in the heyday of steel and steam trains are being straightened, strengthened and spaced out for the age of Marcellus shale.

“Our business has grown approximately 35 percent in the last three years, and probably two-thirds of that is related to the Marcellus shale,” said Russell Peterson, CEO of Allegheny Valley and the Southwest Pennsylvania Railroad.

The two companies are owned and operated by Carload Express in Oakmont.

The Glenwood Yard, center of Allegheny Valley's Pittsburgh operations, will enter the last phase of a $6 million overhaul in the spring. The upgrade will increase capacity for loading, sorting and moving cars that carry sand used in hydraulic fracturing; water and chemicals used in drilling; metal pipe segments and wooden “mats” for crane equipment.

And increasingly, the trains are carrying tanks of the liquefied natural gas being extracted from the shale. The state last week announced a $1.6 million grant toward the work.

Over the past few years, short-line and regional railroads in Western Pennsylvania have been moving more cargo related to extracting natural gas from the Marcellus and Utica shale formations in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, New York and Ohio.

Tracks and equipment that have aged poorly or been abandoned are getting new life.

At the Wheeling & Lake Erie Railroad's Rook Yard off Mansfield Avenue in Green Tree, dilapidated buildings will be demolished this summer to make more room for trucks and trains to transfer cargo, said railroad President Bill Callison.

The company recently got a $1.1 million state grant to rebuild a long-defunct rail siding near Hickory, which will help handle an increase in output from MarkWest Energy Partners' gas processing facility in Houston, Washington County, he said.

“If you look at the Rook Yard five years ago, it was kind of a ghost town. ... Now we barely have enough room there,” said John Chastek, Wheeling & Lake Erie's assistant vice president of business development. “We have crews on duty there 24 hours a day, where five years ago, we had just one crew working five days a week.”

The company's traffic related to Marcellus shale increased by 275 percent between 2010 and 2011, then doubled from 2011 to 2012, Chastek said. It added 64 employees in February after not hiring in three years.

Some railroads are expanding to transport gas, not just move supplies, said Dave Whorton, manager of communications and data for the Washington-based American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association.

Southwestern Pennsylvania Railroad started moving natural gas from its terminal in New Stanton about six months ago, Peterson said.

Allegheny Valley has been moving gas along its line to Washington, Pa., for about a year. Since the fracking boom started, the company has gone from three trains a day on some parts of its system to five, and the trains are getting longer, he said.

Correspondingly, tracks and facilities are being revamped to modern standards. For example, sets of tracks at the Glenwood yard were built close together a century ago. Workers now are spacing them out for safety reasons and strengthening them to handle heavier cars.

In Lawrence County, the New Castle Industrial Railroad's car shop is seeing an uptick in maintenance of other railroads' train cars that move drilling-related cargo.

But for some residents living along tracks, the boom has had a different effect. In Baldwin Borough, a family living along Wheeling & Lake Erie's Mifflin Branch line wants the borough to intervene to quiet trains.

Citing what he said is an increase in traffic over the four years he's lived there, James Bowman recently asked the Baldwin council for help in establishing a “quiet zone.” The designation would prohibit train operators from blowing horns as they approach the crossing at McAnulty Road. Baldwin officials said they are looking into it.

Farther down the line in Castle Shannon, Regis McQuaide, owner of Master Remodelers on Elm Avenue, said Wheeling & Lake Erie trains run between his two properties day and night, blowing their horn for the crossing at Chestnut Avenue.

“I live about a mile away, as the crow flies, and the whole valley hears it whenever they come through. ... It shakes the glass and it rattles your teeth,” McQuaide said.

“They're good neighbors, though. It's great that they're busier.”

Matthew Santoni is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5625 or msantoni@tribweb.com.

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