United States

United States

The rail revolution

US: Rail transportation is playing an increasingly important role in wind industry logistics. David Gazzetta considers the cost and environmental advantages of shipping components by track.

On track: Rail allows cost effective movement of large loads
On track: Rail allows cost effective movement of large loads

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Wind is an important sector for Union Pacific.

The company has been shipping wind components by rail since 2003 and in the past two years alone, its service has grown by 50%. We now serve ports on the west coast of the US, the Gulf of Mexico and on the Great Lakes, and have 11 wind distribution centres.

Our wind business has grown because rail offers the industry a number of advantages over road.

It is far more environmentally friendly; a typical unit train of 40 to 60 cars, for example, can achieve 400 miles per gallon based on gross tonne-miles - far more than a truck.

Trains are also about three times cleaner than trucks in emissions, plus taking large trucks of the roads means less congestion.

Transportation by rail also makes sense when you consider the growth in the size of the wind industry and the size of the equipment it is now using.

Whereas a truck will carry a single tower section, a train can carry one per car, which means 60 tower sections on a typical train.

Blades generally take up two cars, amounting to 30 blades per train, while hubs and nacelles can usually be accommodated at between one and three per car.

Given the growth in traffic from the wind industry, this factor alone makes rail a logical choice.

Manufacturers and developers need the capacity to be able to move increasingly large amounts of equipment, and rail is able to provide that with considerable savings over truck.

We can help cut transportation costs from an early stage in the process.

But before a wind component can be moved anywhere, the manufacturer must ensure that it is suitable for carriage by rail.

When Union Pacific entered this business, there were concerns that the stresses and strains involved in rail haulage would damage delicate blades or gearbox components.

But by working with manufacturers during the development of their equipment, we have helped pre-empt these problems.

For example, our engineers help test components, and we provide manufacturers with our cars so they can carry out test moves.

Beyond this, cutting costs comes down to sound logistical planning. Many companies have little or no rail experience, and a lack of knowledge of the processes involved can push costs higher.

Probably the biggest issue is the dimensional clearance process.

If a customer has a 14-foot wide tower, we help them input the request to clear that component from origin to destination so safe clearance is maintained with bridges, tunnels or other trains.

We help them to order the right cars and make sure they are available when the shipment is ready.

Storage facilities

Union Pacific's distribution centres can also trim costs.

Often manufacturers do not have space at their plants or ports to store equipment while it awaits shipping to the wind farm.

Our 11 centres can accommodate large amounts of components and we have processes in place to inspect the loads and make sure they are handled and stored safely.

Of course, we have to adapt our own equipment to the changing needs of the wind industry.

We work closely with an engineering firm that designs fixtures for the rail cars that enable blades, towers and other parts to sit on the cars safely and be moved without damage.

This all requires investment, but it's investment we think is worthwhile.

As the past two years have shown, the wind industry is expanding and we see it as an important growth sector for the future.
David Gazzetta is general director of carload solutions at Union Pacific Distribution Services

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