“Without rails it fails…"

Posted by Roy Blanchard
on Wednesday, May 26, 2010

By Roy Blanchard

That’s what Mark Murawski, transportation planner for the Lycoming County (Pennsylvania) Planning Commission said at the 2010 Pennsylvania Freight Seminar, an annual affair of the Pennsylvania Rail Freight Advisory Committee. Murawski was speaking as a panelist on "Railroads and the Race for Marcellus Shale Gas." Here's why the railroads are essential to the successful tapping of the Marcellus Shale natural-gas reserves.  

The drilling equipment itself, the miles of pipe of varying diameter, the sand used in the drilling process, cement, and other materials are not typically found locally. It takes 100 truckloads of material to set up a mine site as well as the heavy drilling equipment that must come from afar. Wells can be from 3,000 to 7,000 feet deep and have lateral lines of horizontal drilling that can extend another 8,000 feet from the vertical core. Therefore, piping is a major railroad commodity.

The drilling process involves "hydraulic fracturing," a process in which drillers pump large amounts of water mixed with sand and other fluids into the shale formation under high pressure to fracture the shale around the well, which allows the natural gas to flow freely to the well bore. The amount of frac sand typically required for hydraulic fracturing just one well can run in excess of 4 million pounds or 20 railcars' worth and can come from points as close as southern New Jersey or as far away as western Canada. 

As of this month a total of 1,245 new gas wells have been drilled in the Pennsylvania Marcellus Shale field in the past two years and another 900 permits are outstanding.  Putting that in railcar context and we're talking about 25,000 covered hopper loads of sand already and another 18,000 to come should all the wells permitted get built.

Pipe? At 3,000 to 7,000 feet of depth and pipe segments averaging 55 feet in length, we’re talking in terms of nearly 200 pieces of casing pipe per hole. Area short lines tell me they get about 160 pieces of pipe depending on diameter in each open-top gondola car. Call it another thousand cars of casing pipe alone.

Lycoming County is not only the largest county in Pennsylvania, but it is also the epicenter of shale gas drilling in the state. The Marcellus Shale area itself is huge, covering the southern half of New York, the western half of Pennsylvania, the eastern third of Ohio, and all of West Virginia.

Due to the challenging road network in the mountains of western Pennsylvania, the effective service radius for a railhead is about 75 miles, so the closer the well-head the railroad can set up its transload the better.  An area that big comprises a lot of 75-mile radius circles so it’s easy to see why without the railroads, there would be no massive Marcellus Shale development.

Four Pennsylvania short lines, the Lycoming Valley, the Reading & Northern, the Wellsboro & Corning, and the Penn Lines of the R.J. Corman Railroad Group are the present shortline players; New York’s Western New York & Pennsylvania is just waiting in the wings for New York to get its permitting act together so it can begin opening transloads along its 200 miles of ex-Erie Lackawanna main line between Hornell, N.Y. and Meadville, Pa. Norfolk Southern is the prime Class I beneficiary with 90 percent of the loads with the balance coming of Canadian Pacific's lines. 

This is “heat and eat” traffic. Now if only we could revive the Wellsville, Addison & Galeton and the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Elmira Branch...

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