Bobtails traveling to islands by barge. Tanks airlifted to inaccessible mountain locations. A propane truck driving Alaska’s ice road. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, AmeriGas now has a bobtail riding the rails.
AmeriGas is the primary provider of propane for the nation’s five largest railroads. For some railroads, we are the exclusive supplier. The gas we deliver fuels heat for the track switches. Each switch guides railcars off one track and onto another at spurs or junctions.
Railways run through some remote areas of the country. Alongside them are gravel access roads that lead to 500- or 1,000-gallon tanks that fuel the switch heaters. We deliver to about 9,000 tanks at thousands of these locations.
At times, severe snowstorms make delivering propane by bobtail to isolated tank locations difficult. In a snow event, switch heaters can run 24-hours-a-day for a number of days. “When there’s a big snowstorm, that’s when the switch heaters need the heat, so that’s when we need to be delivering,” says National Accounts Sales Director Brian Grimm.
Over the last couple of years, representatives from BNSF Railway started talking with AmeriGas about an option to deliver gas directly from the tracks. Railroad crews have long been riding the rails in maintenance vehicles designed to travel the tracks. The challenge was to develop a bobtail that could travel on the road or on the rail system.
Determined to serve our railroad customers no matter what the weather brings, Fleet Manager Jay Massey drew up specifications for a rail truck and reached out to truck builder Westmor Industries. Westmor delivered a propane delivery truck with a hy-rail (highway to rail) wheel system similar to what railroad maintenance trucks use. Now, when roads are not navigable, the hy-rail system converts the bobtail from road-ready to a rail-equipped in minutes.
Once positioned on the railroad track, the driver uses a lever to drop a set of rail wheels that raise the bobtail’s front tires off the track. The driver drops a second set of rail wheels at the back of the truck to align with the track, but the rear tires stay in contact to propel the vehicle.
AmeriGas drivers from two locations—Steele, ND and Avon, MN—braved temperatures of 30 degrees below zero in January to train in the truck. BNSF workers, who escort the AmeriGas bobtail on all deliveries made by rail, joined them. After completing two days of test runs, they were ready for the first rail delivery, which came in early March.
While the hy-rail technology is available at the push of a lever, setting up a rail delivery is more involved. Before the truck can hit the rails, District Manager Steve Blenker of the Steele and Avon offices works with BNSF to arrange a delivery window. The process involves coordination among the local AmeriGas and BNSF teams and officials at the railroad’s hub in Fort Worth, TX, which controls when and where trains are moving on the tracks.
In March, muddy and wet conditions made road access to two BNSF tank sites difficult. A bobtail driver regularly travels through two miles of fields to access one of the sites. Conditions made that impossible, so AmeriGas and BNSF worked together to coordinate timing of two deliveries by rail.
When the delivery window arrived, BNSF secured access for the bobtail to travel along 15 miles of track. Propane and rail crews traveled to the tank sites as a team while a train waited on a siding until the fills were completed and the bobtail was off the rails.
“It really worked great–without a hitch,” says Steve, who joined three others from the Steele district for the inaugural ride. “It was very interesting to be with the BNSF employees as they used computers and radios to access the track for us from Fort Worth.”
The hy-rail bobtail will deliver to tanks in North Dakota serviced mainly by the Steele office but also Avon and AmeriGas in Detroit Lakes, MN, led by District Manager Dave Martinson.
Delivering propane by rail is not only more efficient, but also safer. The hy-rail bobtail meets or exceeds all road and rail requirements. Furthermore, electronics in the cab enable the railroad’s hub to communicate with the propane driver, monitor vehicle’s location on the tracks, and even stop the truck (if needed).
Our bobtail on rails is just one more way AmeriGas delivers our portable fuel wherever it needs to go.