Friday, August 27, 2010

Today's Train of Thought: Going With the Grain- August 27, 2010

When one thinks of ethanol hauled by rail, one could understandably think of Midwestern shortlines and regionals along the lines of the Iowa Interstate or Iowa Northern, but sometimes that's just the starting point. That subsidized, grainy byproduct which loves to be shipped by rail winds up further afield in unlikely places such as Utah or Rhode Island.

The grain alcohol that winds up at the Motiva Enterprises Distribution Center in Providence, RI takes a rather circuitous route, according to Canadian Railway Observations. Typically, the ethanol originates on the Soo Line around Enderlin, ND and travels as far as Chicago as-perhaps somewhat ominously- Train #666 (the outbound empties are designated Train #667) before heading off between Chicago and Detroit on Norfolk Southern trackage rights. Once across the Michigan/Ontario border, the train is back on 'home' rails (Soo line is a wholly owned subsidiary of Canadian Pacific) where it continues on to Montreal before heading south on another Canadian Pacific [NYSE: CP] subsidiary- the Delaware & Hudson. From Montreal, it only travels as far south as Whitehall, NY where it is interchanged with the Green Mountain/Vermont Railway system. Once on Green Mountain rails, the ethanol travels as far as Bellows Falls, VT where it is interchanged with Rail America's [NYSE: RA] New England Central. From there, the New England Central takes the ethanol as far south as Groton, CT before handing it off to the Providence & Worcester [NASDAQ: PWX]. Although a relatively straight shot from Groton to Providence on Amtrak's Northeast corridor, the volatile nature of the ethanol means that it has to move back north and reach its final destination via Worcester, MA.

A little under a decade ago, the P&W began selling off their fleet of 2300 HP former CSX GE B23-7s and purchasing 3900 HP GE B39-8s from LMX leasing as well as cabless 3000 HP B30-7AB 'boosters' from BNSF. At the time it seemed like a little much for the Worcester, MA-based regional, although the Wallingford, CT-Queens, NY stone trains justified that kind of horsepower. Then the P&W began handling imported coal from the port of Providence for power plants in Bow, NH and Holyoke, MA followed by the addition of the ethanol trains. In 2005, the P&W purchased four 4000 HP GE B40-8s secondhand from fellow northeastern regional New York, Susquehanna & Western.

Here, contributor Ron Chouinard catches former Susie-Q B40-8 #4002 sprinting southbound through the small P&W yard at Cumberland, RI on its way to Providence on a sunny October 27, 2008 afternoon with a loaded ethanol train. The #4002 is in charge of five units (two of them with cabs!) as the autumn leaves are approaching their peak.

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