J. Alex Lang

Two Unit Trains

RJ Corman coal gons, Curwensville, Pa.

During the month of February, I had the opportunity to “give chase” to two unique unit train operations in western Pennsylvania.  The first is RJ Corman’s RBS shuttle train, operated for Rosebud Mining between Cherry Tree, Pa. and Bigler (near Clearfield, Pa).  Rosebud operates an underground mine, working the Upper Freeport coal seam, that was opened at Cherry Tree in 2010.  Three to four trains per week shuttle the raw coal from Cherry Tree, approximately 45 miles northeast to a “prep plant” at Bigler where the coal is washed and sorted by size, and then loaded onto trucks or “system” (usually Norfolk Southern” coal hoppers for delivery to the consignee.  Since these trains operate in captive service – meaning that the trains don’t leave RJ Corman’s territory, special gondola cars were purchased for this service and painted in Corman’s trademark bright red colors.

The second unit train is a very recent occurrence, and much less is known about it – the impact of the Marcellus Shale gas “play” has been well-documented in rail journalism circles over the last three years.  Unlike traditional gas wells, where the bore goes more or less straight down, these wells drill down about a mile, and then horizontally up to a mile or so away from the well, in several directions.  Water is mixed with special chemicals – which causes some consternation with environmental groups – and is used to break the shale apart and release the gas.  To fill the void left by the drilling, sand is pumped in.  Lots of sand.

Pennsylvania’s railroads have benefited hugely from the rise in sand and other Marcellus-related shipments, such as brine water (the waste water generated from the drilling process), chemicals, drilling equipment, and pipe.  Several truck-to-rail transload facilities have popped up in western PA over the last few years.  The Allegheny Valley Railroad has been observed to handle some sand traffic between Norfolk Southern and the Buffalo & Pittsburgh – and recently, unit sand trains featuring 60 covered hoppers, have been observed grinding up Bakerstown Hill.  Here, we show a few images from an empty sand train returning over AVR back to NS.