Riding the Rails

BNSF has invested billions to make sure that rail remains a vital part of the pulp and paper industry’s transport picture.


Rail traffic is closely tied to the US economy. Delegates at the recent TAPPI Shipping Receiving & Warehousing (SRW) Conference heard Michael Wade, AVP, industrial products, BNSF Railway, extol the virtues of rail traffic.

BNSF Railway is one of North America’s leading freight transportation companies, operating on 32,500 route miles of track in 28 US states and three Canadian provinces. BNSF is one of the top transporters of consumer goods, grain and agricultural products, low-sulfur coal, and industrial goods such as petroleum, chemicals, food and beverages, and paper products.

Rail still moves more cargo than any other transport mode in the US: 40 percent.

There are environmental benefits as well. A doublestack intermodal train removes more than 250 long-haul trucks from America’s roadways. Wade noted that moving freight by rail instead of truck can help reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by about 75 percent. A BNSF train can haul one ton of freight 500 miles on a single gallon of diesel fuel.

Rail carloads used to be tightly correlated to US GDP. However, in the past few years rail carloads have declined, which Wade attributed to the reduced number of coal shipments. Rail traffic is tightly connected to changes in the energy infrastructure, especially coal. Coal used to represent about a quarter of all rail shipments; recently, coal consumption has lost ground due to wind, natural gas, and increased energy efficiency. Another big user of rail is crude oil; shipments have fallen here as well, something Wade said was due to increased use of pipelines.

Safety is a big part of the BNSF offering, Wade added. Sensors are used extensively on rolling stock and track. BNSF also makes use of drones and radar technology. Drones are used in remote areas that are difficult to reach by vehicle. Ground penetrating radar can sense instability in the ground under the rail bed.

To keep up with changing customer needs, BNSF has spent US$55 billion in the last 16 years. This includes replacement capital, locomotives, and other equipment. In January, the company announced that its 2017 capital expenditure plan will be approximately US$3.4 billion.

Each year we establish a capital plan that reflects the future needs of our customers and the constant need to keep our infrastructure in good working condition,” said Carl Ice, BNSF president and chief executive officer, when announcing the plan. “Our ongoing investments, along with the outstanding efforts of our employees, resulted in the lowest number of derailments in company history last year.”


Single carloads are an issue globally. Wade noted that 62 percent of industrial products move in single car networks. He added that 75 percent of customers receive less than one railcar per day. NNSF has a continuous improvement program for “improving the first and last mile.”

Wade then turned to damage. Door rejects continue to be the leading mechanical defect in the boxcar fleet. They account for 60-70 percent of rejects. According to Wade, door damage can take a boxcar out of commission for 17 days or more, and 3-4 percent of the boxcar fleet can be idle due to reject process and repair. The problem affects all customers and providers, because boxcars are shared assets—part of a pool used by manufacturers and service providers across the US.

However, damage is preventable, and better instruction on handling is the solution. A collaborative effort was launched by all concerned parties: the Association of American Railroads (AAR), railcar leasing companies, and the North American Boxcar Pool. (About 28 percent of North America’s approximately 115,000 boxcars are in the NABP; participating rail companies include BNSF, Union Pacific, CSX, Canadian Pacific Railway, and others.) The result of the collaboration is an animated instructional video that gives a short, creative, and clear message promoting safety and damage reduction.


Looking at forest products specifically, Wade spoke about the Load and Ride Solutions (LARS) program. Its objective is the safe handling of rolled paper in boxcars and intermodal containers and trailers.

BSNF has 14 field managers who can provide onsite loading and securement training to shippers. Two managers are specifically dedicated to rolled paper customers. Services provided include load planning, impact testing, and coordination for interchange moves.

Two LARS managers are members of the AAR Quality Lead Team (QLT). The QLT updates the AAR rolled paper loading guide. It develops, tests, and approves rolled paper patterns. An effort is underway to develop 60-ft loading patterns. Wade added that in 2016, the BNSF LARS team monitored more than 257,000 shipment miles using Snap Shock and Lat Lon ride quality devices.

BNSF No. 6674 leads a double-stacked intermodal container train through mountains in Washington State. Each double-stack intermodal train can take 280 trucks off the highways, resulting in lower emissions and fuel consumption. (Photo credit: BNSF Railway)