Freight Car Friday – Ethanol Trains

14 06 2013

From coast to coast, long strings of new black tank cars hum along the rails carrying the fuel for the economy and a key ingredient of our energy independence. From the cornfield to your gas tank, the railroads are a vital link in the ethanol manufacturing process.

ethanol train

This ethanol train has kept its MD&E locomotives over CSX. The first car is a spacer due to hazmat restrictions. “Foreign power” is just one frequent added bonus to these new trains.

The ethanol boom has transformed the energy sector and pumped new revenues into the railroads as well. Manufacturers can’t build new tank cars fast enough (see our 30,000 gallon tank cars featured earlier this week) to meet the growing demand. Ethanol moves by the carload and by the trainload. Some of the larger distribution facilities can accommodate multiple trains a day. 100 car tank trains are pulled around large loop or “balloon” tracks, emptied and sent back for another load within a few hours and without ever uncoupling a car.


Tank cars like the Lionel 30,000 gallon models are the most visible sign of the ethanol boom.

Often these unit trains can operate for thousands of miles over multiple railroads for days on end. Stopping only to change crews, it is not at all uncommon to see “foreign power” roaming off of home rails and onto interchange partners. BNSF locomotives on Norfolk Southern, CSX power on Union Pacific – the combinations are endless and add a nice splash of color to the otherwise fairly uniform consists.

With the demand for cars so high, it is not uncommon to find tank cars of several owners and leasers in the same train. This too can add a little variety to what would otherwise be one giant black snake-like train. Many railroads also require a buffer car between the locomotives and tank cars and at the end of the train. These cars can be almost anything and are another easy way to customize your model trains.


Don’t forget about raw materials. Ethanol production has created more traffic for the rails than just finished product.

Of course shipment of the finished ethanol is only one half of the equation. Railroads also play a large role in delivering the raw materials to the manufacturing sites. Typically it takes about 3 inbound covered hoppers of corn, potatoes or other product to create 4 outbound loads of ethanol. In addition, you’ll also get 3 more outbound loads of distillers grain in covered hoppers as a byproduct which can be sold for animal feed. Add to this the occasional inbound load of gasoline (about 1 tank car per 30 outbound ethanol loads) to be mixed in as a denaturant and you’ve got a pretty busy operation!

bnsf train

The image of today’s railroading – a BNSF ethanol train sprints across the Arizona desert. Ethanol’s potential seems as endless as this scenery.

While many of us can probably not afford the space to model a large plant which might ship more than 85 outbound ethanol cars daily, you can use those proportions to scale things down for your pike. Ethanol tank cars and of course related cars for production can also be regularly found in smaller blocks mixed in with other freight enroute to or between smaller manufacturing and distribution centers.

No matter how you pour it, the ethanol business offers lots of opportunity for railroads large and small. Maybe it could add some fuel to your modeling endeavors!



5 responses

14 06 2013
Louis Bruette

I always look forward to freight car Fridays! Another great article, but could you make the pictures larger? Thank you.

14 06 2013
Edmund A Skibinski

Ditto, for me as well on making the pictures a little larger,thanks Ed

14 06 2013

If you click on any of the pictures on the blog, they will open in another screen in a larger image.

14 06 2013
Louis Bruette

Thank you, but I did click on the pictures. I should have been more specific, the picture of the BNSF train would be great if it were bigger, after clicking on it. Thank you again for the blog.

15 06 2013
George Honer

Could you set these up with a print version. I have a mac and I highlight the article and then try to copy it in word and many times it comes out as 10 or more pages with one or two words on each line. Thanks George

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