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The Alaska Railroad gets faster, more efficient service with new barges.

Alaska Railbelt Marine, a Lynden Inc. subsidiary, made a big splash two years ago when it landed a 10-year contract with the Alaska Railroad to haul railcars between Seattle and Whittier. Not only did ARM's contract end a 35-year arrangement between Crowley Maritime Services and the Alaska Railroad, but it also makes the business of barging railcars to and from Alaska more efficient.

"The Lynden companies came up with a better mousetrap," said Steve Silverstein, senior director of marketing and statistics with the Alaska Railroad.

When ARM secured the contract with the Alaska Railroad, the company ordered three new state-of-the-art barges, which are really making waves.

Two of the three barges, the Anchorage Provider, launched Sept. 16, 2000, and Fairbanks Provider, launched Feb. 3, began making weekly runs between Seattle and Whittier March 1. The third barge, the Whittier Provider, will be launched this month. All three barges are roll on/roll off railcar barges. They are 420 feet long, 100 feet wide and 24 feet tall. They are each built to accommodate up to 48 railcars, breakbulk cargo and containers, and can each carry up to 13 million pounds of cargo.

New Barges Save Railroad Time, Money

Freight revenue for the railroad in 2000 was just under $70 million, about 74 percent of the railroad's annual revenue. Water service accounts for about 25 percent of the freight revenue. Typically, freight barged to Alaska is heavy, dense and of low-value per pound, according to the railroad's annual report.

Historically, Silverstein said water service has been costly for the railroad, but ARM's new barges are reducing those expenses.

Among the new barges' high-efficiency features are hydra-lift skegs that reduce towing resistance. Skegs on old barges were nothing more than two slabs of steel dragged astern, to aid steering. The skegs on the new barges resemble the wings of a tri-plane. The two sets of three narrow pieces of steel make the new barges easier to tow, Silverstein explained.

"These hyrda-lift skegs are actually a big change," Silverstein said.

The shape of the bows on the new barges also is different than on the older barges. The new bows are curved and are more similar to the bow of a ship than the traditional, nearly vertical, bow of older barges. The new bows also help the barges slip through the water more efficiently.

Because these barges are easier to pull, they require less horsepower and less fuel consumption of the tugs that tow them; they are easier to maneuver, which makes for simpler dockside turn-arounds; and they will be able to withstand rougher seas at speeds up to 10 knots, Silverstein said.

The task of towing the new barges between Seattle and Whittier has been contracted to Western Towboat of Seattle.

Trio of Tugs Tow New Barges

Western Towboat builds all its own tugboats and uses three different tugs to haul ARM's new barges.

The newest addition to Western Towboats' fleet is the Pacific Titan. At 4,500 horsepower, it is the most powerful tug in Western Towboat's line and more than capable of hauling the cargo-laden barges for ARM.

The Pacific Titan is 108 feet long and 35 feet wide. Like all Western Towboat's tugs, it has a Caterpillar engine, a steel hull and an aluminum wheelhouse. Its towline is a 2,600-foot-long, two-and-a-quarter-diameter-inch steel line.

In a head-to-head voyage from Seattle to Whittier in December, the Anchorage Provider, towed by a the 4,500-horsepower Pacific Titan, outran a 30-year-old barge, towed by a 7,200-horsepower Crowley tug--by more than 30 hours, Silverstein said.

The Ocean Ranger is the next most powerful tug to tow ARM's barges. It has a 4,200-horsepower engine and is 117 feet long. The Ocean Ranger was built in 1990. Its two-and-a-quarter-inch towline is 2,800 feet long.

The Alaska Mariner is the third tug tasked with towing the new barges. Its power plant generates 4,000 horsepower. It was built in 1985 and is almost 109 feet long. Its towline is identical to the Ocean Ranger's.

Western Towboat's President Bob Shrewsbury, II, said his company's contract with ARM mirrors the timeline of ARM's contract with the Alaska Railroad. He said while other contracts keep the tugs working more days of the year, the contract with ARM offers a more-dependable, year-round schedule, which means his crews are better able to schedule maintenance.

"And it's less stressful than hauling oil," Shrewsbury said.

Alaska Railbelt Marine Ramping Up

While the cost of ARM's new barges and the value of its contract with the Alaska Railroad are closely guarded secrets, its strategy is not.

"We are going to remain on schedule for the Alaska Railroad," said ARM President Mike Halko.

At present, ARM is run by a staff of two: Halko and David Byrne. Byrne supervises barge loading in Seattle and coordinates unloading in Whittier. Because the barges are not manned during towing, tugboat crews maintain functions.

Staff from other Lynden companies provide support for billing, operations and wherever needed. In the future, Halko said ARM's staff could grow to between a half-dozen and 30 employees. He said the company is still addressing staffing concerns.

"We're trying to groom the operation," Halko said.

For the time being, Halko said ARM is running loaded barges from Seattle to Whittier once a week. He said there are some commodities and scrap metal and other recyclables being brought south, but for the most part, the barges are ferrying mostly empty cars back to Seattle.

Barge Builder on Cutting Edge

The new tugs are built by Gunderson Marine, located at a deep-water port facility on the Willamette River in Portland, Ore. Gunderson Marine is a division of Gunderson Inc., which is a unit of The Greenbrier Companies, a leading supplier of transportation equipment and services in North America and Europe.

According to Gunderson's Web site, the company has (predecessor companies included) produced more than 100,000 railcars since 1960.

Since World War II, Gunderson has built more than 250 ocean-going vessels, including double-hull, gas-turbine, electric-drive oil tankers and triple-deck roll on/roll off barges.

Other projects include oil and deckcargo barges, chemical barges, dump scows, military gunboats, hydraulic dump barges, dredges and the world's largest roll on/roll off railcar barges.

Gunderson's customers include all Class 1 and many short-line railroads, shippers, leasing companies and ocean-shipping companies. The company employs about 1,300 workers.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Alaska Business Publishing Company, Inc.
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Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2001
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