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On the Rails

Innovative companies are finding a new market for post-consumer plastics in the 173,000 miles of railway track used by more 600 freight railroads operating across North America. Plastic railway ties a...


Innovative companies are finding a new market for post-consumer plastics in the 173,000 miles of railway track used by more 600 freight railroads operating across North America. Plastic railway ties are gaining acceptance in the United States — all indicators point to increased demand over the next few years, coupled with the possibility of product acceptance within Canada and Mexico. These are the findings of a recent report written by CIC Innovation Consultants Inc., a Waterloo, Ontario-based research firm commissioned by the Environment and Plastics Industry Council (EPIC), a council of the Canadian Plastics Industry Association.

The report, entitled Custom Market Research Study Reviewing the Potential for: Plastic Railroad Ties in Canada, suggests that the North American demand for railway ties in 2002 was 15.8 million ties — a seven per cent increase from the previous year. Of that amount, Canadian Class I railroads are expected to represent approximately 1.65 million ties.

Material comparisons

There are several features unique to plastic railway ties that make them an ideal substitute for the wood and concrete ties used today. For one, plastic ties do not deteriorate over time. They also perform consistently in all climates, which cannot be said of all the other options. An ample supply of raw materials is another factor in favour of the plastic ties, as is their ability to accept a spike without splitting. Plus, at the end of their lifespan — which is estimated to be 30+ years (in comparison to the 15 years achievable from wood and 20+ years from concrete) — the plastic ties are fully recyclable.

Of these many features, two are currently helping to drive sales within the U.S. First, the environmental issues (i.e., damp climate in the southern states) require a tie that will not rot or deteriorate. Second, disposal costs are reported to be higher in the U.S. than in Canada, which makes the recyclability of plastic ties more appealing. The growing concern over the use of chemical preservatives, namely creosote, in wood ties has also spurred interest in the plastic counterpart.

Future concerns such as the disposal of creosote-treated wooden ties and dwindling lumber supplies may eventually increase the appeal of plastic ties even within the Canadian market.

Major contenders

Houston, Texas-based Tie-Tek Inc. is currently one of the largest suppliers of plastic railway ties in North America. Its largest customer, Union Pacific (UP) Railroad, has over 50,000 plastic ties in use and 200,000 additional ties on order. Tie-Tek also has other Class I railway customers and plans to begin marketing to Class II and transit lines.

Tie-Tek has been testing its ties since 1996 at the ARA Transportation Technology Center in Pueblo, Colorado. Their product contains more between 70 to 80 per cent post-consumer waste, including 50 per cent HDPE recyclate, as well as recycled crumb rubber and mineral fillers. A textured finish was added to the ties in 2001, which increases the friction with the ballast and prevents lateral movement.

Tie-Tek currently holds patents in eight countries (including Canada) and has an active licensee in Australia. The company hopes to broaden its geographical scope, and anticipates that this will result in additional licenses sold.

Florida-based U.S. Plastic Lumber is another major supplier of plastic railway ties. One of the largest customers of this company’s product is the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), which ordered 10,000 ties in 2001 and another 20,000 in 2002. U.S. Plastic Lumber also supplied 5,000 to 10,000 plastic ties to “test” customers in the U.S., Brazil and Italy. The company’s product formulations include a mix of between 80 to 100 per cent waste HDPE, with the balance composed of one or more other polymers.

The report suggests that both Tie-Tek and U.S. Plastic Lumber are amenable to licensing arrangements within Canada.

This side of the border

The report also shows that there is less acceptance of the plastic ties in Canada than in the U.S. Canadian National (CN) Railway is currently testing the properties of plastic ties, although the tests are taking place on its U.S. line near New Orleans. However, company representatives suggest that parts of southern B.C. may be a future possibility because of the area’s high humidity. Although the report showsthat both CN and Canadian Pacific Railway are satisfied with wood ties and would require additional testing on plastic ones before use,it also points to the potential of future growth in this country when disposal costs and other environmental issues come to the fore.

Cathy Cirko is the vice president, Environment & Health, Canadian Plastics Industry Association. For further information, e-mail ccirko@cpia.ca


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