Electric unit helps Tennessee-based TiFuel give discarded railroad ties new life as powerful biofuel.
TC Taylor is not one to tackle any project halfheartedly. As a longtime veteran of railroad-related businesses and the founder and owner of a number of businesses serving that industry, he believes in doing things right the first time. That includes giving the customer more than he or she expects, treating his employees well, and using only quality equipment to get the job done. On one of those business ventures, TiFuel, an operation that takes crossties deemed no longer suitable for track use and either sells them for landscaping or grinds them up for boiler fuel, he has raised the bar even higher. Seeking to both streamline the efficiency of the operation and reduce their environmental impact, TiFuel recently turned away from contract grinders, brought that operation in-house via a new grinder purchase, and in doing so, went with an electric unit, a Morbark 4600XL. Taylor says they are now grinding all they need—when they need it—and he sees a significant savings in fuel, maintenance and upkeep costs as well as a reduction in both noise and environmental pollution.
A Better Approach
Though most Americans tend to shrug off railroads, particularly freight trains, as a technology whose time has come and gone, nothing could be further from the truth. Railroads have, in fact, been bucking a host of economic trends over the last couple of decades and today are one of the few industries in which employment, revenue, return on investment, and dollars spent on infrastructure improvements have been on the rise. Maintaining that infrastructure, including the nearly 17,000,000 crossties that support the U.S. railways system, is a massive and ongoing process. When ties are deemed too worn for track use, they are pulled and disposed of, a practice which, according to TC Taylor, forms the basis for TiFuel’s business.
“Proper disposal of crossties has been an issue for a long time now and a number of different approaches have been tried,” he says. “Years ago, one company had a machine they called the ‘tie destroyer’ which would run on the track, grind up the old ties that had been pulled, and spit the debris off to the side. While somewhat effective, it just created more of a mess for the railroad. Because of my experience, I knew that rail ties were an excellent fuel source and felt they should be used that way. So I contracted with railroad officials to get control of those ties and put them to a better use.”
Norfolk Southern Ties
Taylor says he and his company have worked hard to build up a solid business relationship with the Norfolk Southern which he cites as one of the most innovative railroads operating today. That effort has paid off: his company is one of only a few contractors ever allowed to work right alongside the railroad’s track gangs.
The tie retrieval and grinding process is simple: through one of his businesses, Railroad Maintenance and Service Company of America, they use a rail-mounted loader/handler (Taylor’s own patented design), gather the ties that have been removed, load them onto rail cars and bring them back to the TiFuel yard in Greeneville, Tennessee. There, once again using the right-of-way handlers, they are offloaded and sorted according to quality: better ones for use as landscape timbers or retaining walls, the remainder for boiler fuel at an area paper mill.
“It is essentially the same approach we’ve been taking since I first got the idea to pursue this more than 30 years ago,” he says. “However, when we started, diesel was .39 a gallon and companies we approached thought we were crazy. It was a different story when diesel prices skyrocketed. Suddenly these ties, which have a BTU value almost double that of traditional biofuel, became a very cost-effective alternative for them.”
Changes in Attitude
TiFuel’s yard in Greeneville is the picture of efficiency. A long and narrow approximately 8-acre site (it was once a Norfolk Southern piggyback siding), Taylor’s team has gotten the unloading, sorting, grinding and trucking process down to a science. Only nine men handle the entire operation, a number that belies both the constant, almost frenetic level of activity taking place, and the volumes done: better than 1.3 million ties per year—about half of all that the Norfolk Southern generates. Of that number, 250,000 are slated for landscape use with the balance headed to the grinder for fuel.
For the better part of three decades, that grinding effort had been handled by contract grinders, companies who were paid to come in and take the fuel-grade ties down to the 3-inch minus size needed for delivery to their customer. That arrangement was not without its challenges, says Randy Cochran, general manager of the TiFuel operation.
“For the most part, things worked out fine.” He says. “But, because you are at the mercy of that grinding company, if for some reason they can’t get to you, you can be dead in the water. With that in mind, we decided to bring the grinding part of the business in-house. We did a lot of research, selected Morbark based on that research and their solid reputation, and started thinking about what we wanted in a grinder.”
With a major capital investment at hand, TiFuel’s concerns ran much deeper than simply production; they saw the switch as an opportunity to totally rethink things.
Operating expenses were examined, as was safety and environmental impact. After several conversations with Steve Rawls, Morbark’s Field Sales Specialist, TiFuel placed an order for an electric Model 4600XL grinder.
“Steve was outstanding in helping us sort it all out,” says Cochran. “When it was all said and done, there were a number of reasons for us taking the route we did. After running the numbers, we saw that, with an electric machine, we could realize some really nice savings, not just in fuel—though that’s been the case—but also in maintenance and upkeep costs. We also liked the fact that we could avoid the risk of combining creosote-soaked ties, a hot grinder and diesel fuel. Finally, when you consider that there are no diesel emissions from this machine and it runs quieter than the machines feeding it, going electric just made so much sense.”
Taylor adds that the performance they’ve gotten out of the 4600XL since installation in October has been a real eye opener. He cites a preconceived notion that, because a grinder is powered by electricity, for some reason it will have less power. That, he says, has not been the case at all.
“This unit doesn’t even seem to change RPMs when a load of ties is running through the mill—it’s that consistent. It is clean, it is powerful and it is quieter than anything else I’ve ever heard; that works for me. We expect to send about 70,000 tons of crossties through that 4600 this year alone, and have hopes to change a few things to increase that volume to 100,000 tons. When we max things out, the limitation will not be due to the grinder—it will take anything we can give it—it will be because of other issues.”
While a paper mill is the sole customer for TiFuel’s ground up material, the landscape-grade ties—roughly 1,000 flatbed trucks of them each year—go to customers ranging from the major chain home improvement stores like Home Depot and Lowe’s, to independent landscapers. Never one to rest on his laurels, Taylor, says they have some plans in the works to grow the business even further.
“We can’t expand any further at this site simply because of the physical size limitations,” he says. “But we are looking at setting up another location in which we will do an identical operation further south. I feel we have everything that we need in place now, including markets for our products, equipment that is reliable and efficient and a work force that is second to none.”
A 35-year veteran of the rail industry (in one form or another), Taylor says lessons his father taught him as a youngster have helped shape the man he’s become and the career paths he’s chosen.
“My dad instilled a work ethic in me that I value and I’ve never lost. He taught me that the dirtier and less-desirable a job is, the better the opportunity. I’ve taken that to heart and it’s served me well. It pains me to see a whole generation coming along who only want to get an MBA and become executives or managers. This country was founded on the principle of hard work; that’s something I’m afraid has gotten lost along the way.”
That philosophy of rewarding someone for a day’s work extends into Taylor’s daily operations as well. While other companies look for ways to reduce the bottom line—often at the expense of their workers—Taylor says that is one area in which he will not scrimp.
“This is not the most glamorous job around and everyone here, including me, knows that. So, in all my operations, I pay my people well because I recognize that, without them, I wouldn’t have a business to speak of. As a result, I’ve got people who take pride in their work and we have a very low employee turnover rate. I couldn’t be happier with the way things are going now. I have an outstanding management team in Randy and Pat Wilson, our vice president, great employees, and equipment like the grinder that I know will be contributing to our success for years to come. We have a saying down here: ‘Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered,’ and it’s very true. As a company, we’ve tried to avoid being hoggish and there’s no denying that it’s really paying off.”