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Land at a premium, railroad exploits its air space

Cranes will let new CSX yard move more freight without adding acreage

By John Dyer
Globe Correspondent / February 14, 2011

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A railroad freight yard takes up a lot of space. There needs to be room for the trains and for the trucks, and plenty of room to move cargo between the two.

So when the rail giant CSX Corp. was looking to replace its Beacon Park rail yards next to the Massachusetts Turnpike in Allston with a state-of-the-art yard, it turned to Worcester.

At a cost of $100 million, CSX will expand its 58-acre Worcester freight yard to 79 acres, making it roughly the same size as the Beacon Park yard. The new yard is scheduled for completion next year, and CSX plans to shut down the Allston property, according to documents filed with the state. But even though the Worcester yard will grow, it sits near the city’s downtown, sandwiched between two entertainment districts. That keeps space at a premium — horizontal space, that is.

Still, the Worcester yard will handle more cargo. The trick? Air space.

In the revamped CSX terminal, 22-foot-high cranes will move cargo containers between freight trains and tractor-trailer trucks, a system that requires a smaller footprint than the forklift-like side loaders that workers drive to move containers at Beacon Park, CSX engineers said. The side loaders need room to maneuver around the trains and trucks, while most of the space occupied by the overhead crane is above the train.

“It creates more fluidity,’’ said Maurice O’Connell, CSX’s vice president for state government and community affairs. “Overhead cranes are not pulling in and out. You don’t create traffic congestion.’’

After the expansion, CSX expects the terminal to be able to handle Worcester’s current annual traffic of 108,000 containers plus the approximately 32,000 containers that stop in Allston every year, along with as many as 60,000 additional containers in future years.

Many of those extra containers are expected to travel through Massachusetts after state transportation officials complete an $80 million project to raise bridges and lower track beds from Interstate 495 to the New York border, allowing CSX to double-stack cargo containers on trains terminating in Worcester.

“That obviously is an exploitation of three-dimensional space,’’ said Carl Warren, CSX’s director of strategic infrastructure.

The bridge project and the rail yard are the results of a deal between CSX and Governor Deval Patrick that has the state purchasing CSX-owned tracks so the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority can run commuter trains between Worcester and Boston more frequently.

Under the deal, the CSX subsidiary that hauls chemicals, TRANSFLO Terminal Services Inc., will move from Allston to Westborough. TRANSFLO uses five acres in Allston, said CSX spokesman Robert Sullivan.

The changes mean higher volumes, less overhead, and more profit for the rail company, Warren said. “There’s this direction our industry is going, with an increased emphasis on density and stacking,’’ he said, adding that the goal is “using space very efficiently, rather than having a big parking lot.’’

The shift to overhead cranes is an example of how the rail industry is becoming more streamlined, especially in places like Greater Boston, where the population has grown over the years while the amount of available real estate remains the same, said Marc Levinson, an economist and author of “The Box,’’ a 2006 book about how shipping containers transformed the world’s economy.

Levinson said freight rail operators sometimes lag in adopting new methods because they have invested enormous sums in infrastructure and can’t afford to stop work at an outdated terminal while waiting for improvements. Under CSX’s deal with the state, the company will continue to use the Beacon Park yards as it rebuilds in Worcester.

“There has been for a good while a lot of interest in improving the amount of freight moving through terminals,’’ Levinson said. “There is certainly a lot of feeling that terminals are not necessarily run with a lot of efficiency. They want to move the cargo off the train, and they want to do that as quickly as possible. Time is money. They don’t want stuff sitting around.’’

Side loaders can load and unload containers weighing about 90,000 pounds as quickly as overhead cranes can — about 30 an hour, said Carl Martland, a retired senior research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studies train networks. But in the long run, side loaders waste time shuttling containers back and forth.

“It’s more cumbersome because you need to go in, get close to the train, then go back to the truck and drop it down,’’ Martland said.

The side loaders also get in each other’s way as they hustle to reach the train, slowing down the process. “It’s bellying up to the bar, and somebody’s already standing in front of you,’’ he said.

With cranes, on the other hand, trucks drive alongside the train to be unloaded, saving time as the process becomes an assembly line. Most new train depots are built on this model, Martland said. “Cranes are favored where you have problems with space,’’ he added.

To keep trucks rolling in and out smoothly, the Worcester yard will assign each vehicle a numbered parking spot so drivers can wait in line for their cargo. In Allston, there is no similar system to help truckers find the side loaders carrying the containers they are supposed to pick up, O’Connell said. In that way, the cranes will help lessen the confusion.

“You don’t have trucks hunting and pecking,’’ O’Connell said. “They drive to the crane and they load it right on, like you are going to the dry cleaner and getting your clothes.’’