Alaska Railroad LNG Transport
Trial run carries groundbreaking cargo
Alaska Railroad successfully transported the first-ever shipment of liquefied natural gas by rail in the United States in September. The railroad planned to ship two containers twice a week during a four-week demonstration project.
© Alaska Railroad Corporation
As snowflakes fell on a late-September morning, an Alaska Railroad freight train pulled in to the Fairbanks station. Although it was one of the railroad’s five regularly scheduled freight trains to the Interior city, this train also carried some groundbreaking cargo. Among the cars carrying coal, fuel, pipe, and consumer goods were two forty-foot-long gray cylinders with bright red letters spelling out LNG.
It was the conclusion of the first-ever shipment of liquefied natural gas (LNG) by rail in the United States, part of a long-term effort to provide Fairbanks residents with easy, affordable access to the relatively inexpensive, clean-burning fuel. Hitachi High-Tech AW Cryo of Vancouver, Canada, loaned the containers to the railroad for the demonstration.
“It is a feather in the cap for the Alaska Railroad to be the first railroad in the country to do this,” railroad spokesman Tim Sullivan says.
The railroad started planning to move LNG several years ago, receiving the unprecedented two-year permit from the Federal Rail Administration in October 2015 after an arduous permitting process. Although LNG is regularly transported by rail in Europe and Japan, it has never been allowed on a US railroad, until now.
“I know I’ve said this a couple of times, but we’re pretty proud of this,” Sullivan says. “We’re pretty proud of the opportunity, and we think we can take this opportunity and run with it. We’re hopeful that the folks at Titan and FNG [Fairbanks Natural Gas] will see this as a good opportunity maybe as well. We think it’s good for the railroad. We think it’s good for the Interior. We think it’s good for the state in general.”
The cryogenic containers can hold about 27,546 pounds, equivalent to 7,024 gallons, of LNG apiece. The railroad plans to transport two containers twice a week during the four-week demonstration project. If FNG agrees to use the railroad to ship LNG, the tank cars would supplement or replace the fleet of trucks now used to bring LNG to the Interior city from the Titan LNG plant at Point Mackenzie.
“The goal is to show the people who are currently moving LNG by truck that we can do it very efficiently by rail,” Sullivan says. “It’s a good way to move it and maybe it’s an opportunity for them and for Interior Alaska to get LNG here cheaply and efficiently.”
Fairbanks and the nearby community of North Pole suffer some of the worst air pollution in the country, mostly due to residents heating their homes with wood during the Interior’s subzero winters. Although FNG currently serves only 1,100 customers, a project has been in the works for several years to expand the natural gas network. That would give more residents the opportunity to burn LNG, which is less expensive and cleaner than fuel oil and much cleaner than wood.
If FNG chooses to use the railroad as a shipper, Sullivan says, it means no additional capital costs for the Alaska Railroad. Titan or FNG would likely lease the tank cars from Hitachi or another vendor.
The trek to Fairbanks has several legs. First, the LNG is trucked from the plant at Point Mackenzie 70 miles to the rail yard in Anchorage. There, the tanks are loaded onto flatbeds and transported 350 miles to Fairbanks. Two Alaska West trucks offload the tanks for the 4.5 mile leg to FNG, where the LNG is stored. Then the tanks are returned to Titan LNG to repeat the process.
“All we’re going to be doing is shipping it,” Sullivan says. “You know that gym commercial where the guy says ‘I pick things up and put them down?’ That’s us. We put it on a train, we move it to Fairbanks, take it off the train, and put it on a truck.”
Before the demonstration project, the railroad transported one of the empty tanks up the Railbelt, stopping in Wasilla, Talkeetna, Healy, Nenana, and Fairbanks in order to familiarize first responders with the LNG, as well as other cargoes the railroad regularly transports.
“There’s always opportunities for things to go wrong,” Sullivan says. “We’re taking every opportunity we can to make sure they don’t. We’ve got a lot of training from people who’ve been working with LNG for a long time making sure we’ve got all of our ‘T’s crossed and our ‘I’s dotted to make sure we’re moving LNG in a safe and efficient manner.”
Several other railroads have been watching Alaska Railroad’s experience with LNG very closely, Sullivan says. Representatives from a Florida railroad were in Alaska to watch the demonstration project.
“We’re really proud of it,” Sullivan says. “We’re really proud to be the first one in the nation. We’re really proud to be able to show off that we can do this correctly, not just as the Alaska Railroad, but as a member of the railroad industry to show that this is something that can be done in Alaska and in the Lower 48.”
Safe to Transport
The first leg of the demonstration project went smoothly, says railroad spokeswoman Stephenie Wheeler.
“Operations went very smoothly on both ends and the railroad is overall very pleased with how this first leg of the demonstration project unfolded,” Wheeler says. “Federal Railroad Administration officials were here to observe the move and we understand they were pleased as well.”
LNG is a very safe material to transport, as it is much less volatile than fuel or propane, which the railroad also moves, he says. It’s not toxic either, which Alaska Senator Peter Micciche likes to demonstrate by dipping crackers in to a vat of LNG and eating them.
“It’s quite a bit safer than quite a few things we move around the state,” Sullivan says. “It’s safer than propane. It’s less explosive than a lot of other materials, but it still is a hazardous material and we treat it that way.”
First responders’ biggest concerns aren’t fire and explosion, he says, but frostbite and frostburn.
“[The LNG] is being moved at 260 degrees below zero, so a lot of the training has to do with making sure they know when to stay away and when not to do things as opposed to rushing into it and spraying water onto a situation where they shouldn’t spray water,” he says.
If something does happen and a tank gets damaged, it vents very quickly because the LNG is so cold. It’s in a liquid form at minus 260 degrees, so when it hits the air, it almost immediately turns to gas and disperses very quickly if it’s outside. If it happened to vent in a closed area, it would pose more problems, as the gas is flammable. A person could asphyxiate if it replaced the oxygen in a room, as well.
The tanks supplied by Hitachi are intermodal, so in addition to being able to be transported by train or truck, they can also be used as standalone storage units in smaller communities.
“They can be kept here in Fairbanks as storage units if there isn’t enough storage built,” Sullivan says. “It’s a bit of a capital asset just to have to be used for storage, but it is an opportunity. It takes about three months before you start to see any reduction in the viability of the LNG. You can hook them up to power and they’ll still stay cold for a long, long time.
“Basically, it’s a giant Thermos.”
Communities in Japan hook similar LNG cars right up to their power grids. That’s certainly an option for some small Alaska communities, Sullivan says, noting LNG is a more efficient fuel source than propane.
“We’ve talked about it,” he says. “It may be a little pie in the sky but we’ve talked about getting them to Nenana and they go on the river system. There are opportunities for that, as well. There are a lot of small communities on the Railbelt and off the Railbelt that these could be beneficial for in the long term.”
Freelance journalist Julie Stricker lives near Fairbanks.
This article first appeared in the November 2016 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly.