Alaska emergency crews study up for nation’s first LNG by rail

A cryogenic tank container used to carry liquefied natural gas by rail (photo by Elizabeth Harball).
A cryogenic tank container used to carry liquefied natural gas by rail (photo by Elizabeth Harball).

Standing next to a massive cylindrical rail car at the Anchorage Railroad Yard, Alaska Railroad Mechanical Supervisor Josh Cappel asked a fireman to test out the car’s hand-operated braking system.

“Go ahead and fire that thing up tight. Come on, a little tighter than that — there you go!” Cappel joked, drawing laughs from the crowd of about 16 other members of the Anchorage Fire Department.

Starting tomorrow, the Alaska Railroad will be the first in the nation to carry liquefied natural gas by rail. With the Federal Rail Administration’s blessing, LNG will travel the tracks from Anchorage to Fairbanks.

As with any new venture, safety is always a topic of discussion. Cappel said he’s training the Anchorage Fire Department in case the worst happens.

“It’s very important for everyone to understand how rail cars work, especially the fire department,” said Cappel. “If they are responding to any kind of disaster they need to know how these cars work so they don’t get hurt and the people they are rescuing don’t get hurt.”

Over the next four weeks, the Alaska Railroad will complete eight round-trip test runs of liquefied natural gas shipments from Anchorage to Fairbanks. It’s a big first, for Alaska and the U.S. — LNG has never been shipped by rail before. Fairbanks Natural Gas hopes this will be a cheaper, safer way to move the fuel.

Recent oil train explosions in the lower 48 have some people worried about moving train cars filled with fossil fuels through communities. Lois Epstein, an engineer who works for The Wilderness Society, says shipping LNG by rail is generally safer than carrying it in a truck, which is how the LNG is being shipped to Fairbanks now.

“Where I would be concerned, however, is places where the railroad crosses the road because that’s where there are some very real safety issues,” said Epstein.

Collisions with cars crossing the tracks is a concern, but Captain Jared Stiglich with the Anchorage Fire Department says big, fiery explosions aren’t something to worry about with LNG train cars. It’s the extreme cold that’s the problem.

“The biggest concern with LNG is that it’s transported at minus 260 degrees Fahrenheit, so it would freeze-burn anything or anyone.” said Stiglich.

The Alaska Railroad reports most of the LNG’s journey won’t be too close to communities and roadways. But just in case, they’re making sure emergency responders up and down the Railbelt are prepared to handle a new kind of cargo on the tracks.

“For a goodly portion of what we do, we’re off the roadway and out of communities, so folks aren’t going to see us as much while we’re going through,” said Tim Sullivan, External Affairs Manager for the Alaska Railroad. “But it does behoove us to make sure that first responders in the area, even if it’s remote, know what it is we’ve got going on.”

Elizabeth Harball is a reporter with Alaska's Energy Desk, covering Alaska’s oil and gas industry and environmental policy. She is a contributor to the Energy Desk’s Midnight Oil podcast series. Before moving to Alaska in 2016, Harball worked at E&E News in Washington, D.C., where she covered federal and state climate change policy. Originally from Kalispell, Montana, Harball is a graduate of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

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