Completing a multi-faceted expansion project on schedule is noteworthy, especially in the infrastructure and transportation world. Moreover, completing such a project ahead of schedule may often make all the difference in the world to a customer. BNSF shortline affiliate Farmrail System, a holding company for Class III carriers Grainbelt Corporation (GNBC) and Farmrail Corporation (FMRC), took the initiative to do just that in 2016, completing a track renovation and expansion project in only 28 days after laying the first new tie.
Merril Lieb, assistant vice president, Shortline Development, is pleased with Farmrail’s results. "It’s truly amazing how quickly the team from Farmrail was able to work with the customer to identify a location and complete this project," Lieb said. “This is a great example of a shortline's local market knowledge and entrepreneurial spirit."
The Farmrail System is located near the 50,000 square mile Anadarko Basin hydrocarbon reserve located in western Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle. Known for deep oil drilling, the Basin has experienced an increase in hydraulic fracturing, more commonly referred to as fracking, over the past six years. Woodford Shale deposits from the Basin have been especially sought after due to their relatively low cost of production in a market of depressed prices for domestic crude oil. GNBC interchanges with BNSF at Enid, Okla., an ideal access point for sending drilling supplies to the Woodford Shale deposits. Seeing the opportunities associated with the location, BNSF rehabilitated the tracks at Enid to facilitate interchange of the sand unit trains with Farmrail. BNSF's collaboration with GNBC has resulted in increased volumes, with Farmrail’s total 2016 traffic up 24.8%, their third best year ever.
Farmrail System President and General Manager Judy Petry expressed deep appreciation for BNSF's collaborative efforts and their impact on Farmrail's ability to grow in 2016. "We have held on, grown, and excelled," Petry said.
In June of 2016, Farmrail was contacted by Mine to Well (M2W), a rail-to-truck sand transloader, who expressed interest in operating somewhere that provided better access to drilling locations. Farmrail embraced the challenge and suggested a FMRC line in Westhom, Okla. This location would place M2W within easy trucking distance of the drilling sites, creating an economic advantage for both Farmrail and their customer, while also increasing equipment velocity for both railroads.
Working with BNSF, Farmrail and M2W created a plan to combine the efficiency of BNSF's long-haul unit train service with Farmrail’s customizable, local switching capabilities. To achieve this goal, however, the FMRC track had to be expanded, so a prime location was identified for purchase with an existing 3,300 ft. rail siding. Farmrail and M2W met with the current lessees and reached an agreement for M2W to take over the property. Another challenge remained to be met, however—clearing the land. Despite the work that remained, an aggressive completion date of Sept. 15 was targeted for the first unit train delivery of sand for the customer.
After the extensive dirt-work and cleanup of the property was completed, Farmrail replaced 8,400 ties and laid 10,188 tons of ballast. Also, in order to handle the traffic efficiently, Farmrail acquired more locomotives and hired additional staff to service the transload facility seven days a week, 24 hours a day. The total project cost shared by Farmrail and M2W was approximately $2 million.
The first train departed on Sept. 9, arrived in Enid on Sept. 11 and was sent to Westhom the next day, enabling truck deliveries to field locations to begin only 28 days after the first tie was laid. In October, M2W set a goal of handling one unit train per week. Now, just a few months later, they are shipping two unit trains a week.
"We are excited about the opportunities to this new unit train site, which helps our sand customers get closer to the drilling activity in the basin," Lieb said.
When asked what the most difficult aspect of completing the project was, Petry said that she could not cite any one specific example because whenever an issue would arise, someone, either BNSF, Farmrail or M2W, had a resolution immediately. “It was teamwork at its best,” Petry said. “BNSF has done a stellar job of moving the trains so quickly. BNSF’s operations team has done an amazing job."
Farmrail expects another successful year in 2017, with more growth in frack sand and agricultural-related commodities.