SLWX: Ocean Salt Flows North by Rail


20.January, East Providence RI — A short string of covered hoppers headed out behind the P&W, loaded with salt drayed from Fall River MA, and bound for Shelburne VT — and on the way changing everything that’s known about sourcing road salt in New England. Upstart salt distributor Saltine Warrior has carved a new rail-based ocean salt distribution channel to northern New England.

For decades, road salt to northern New England has been a stable staple, punctuated by yearly bids, typically won by proximate inland sources such as Cargill Salt (Lansing NY) and American Rock Salt (Mt. Morris NY), delivered by rail to large Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine and Massachusetts distribution sheds, and then trucked to municipalities and private hoards. 

Connecticut and Rhode Island have favored “ocean salt,” purchased in other countries at vastly lower prices than the domestic product, brought in the tens-of-tons by ship, and landed at underutilized small ports. But a shipload is not enough volume to justify leasing a fleet of hoppers for a dead-head rail move, so ocean salt has always been limited to a truck’s range, and only

Lowest price salt suppliers
For a long time, salt mined in Egypt has commanded some of the lowest per-ton prices in the world. Thanks also to a relatively easy voyage to the eastern U.S., a landed ton of Egyptian salt can be vastly less expensive than domestic product {Tridge}.

viable for small-volume buyers within close range of the landing. Even at that, many truckers avoid the highly-corrosive cargo, which eats away at mechanical equipment.

Rail makes it simpler?

Saltine Warrior’s John Pearson says: “There’s a lot of advantage … other than cost” to using rail. Most essentially, 35,000 tons of salt requires 1,000 dump trailers, or 250 railcars. “For me to organize 1,000 truckers, invoices, bills … Railcars don’t get flat tires, and don’t have kids in school plays. The logistics are the [costly] feature of the business.”

Pearson is a lifelong railroader, having started on the Northern Pacific Railroad after graduating from Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business. He served as General Manager for Cape Cod Central Railroad, which gave him a close view of the region’s salt distribution challenges. Cape Cod deliveries from Quincy, Chelsea or Charlestown were often delayed. He saw that a closer salt pile would give him an advantage.

(Almost) free cargo, but expensive to carry

The 2020 collapse in energy prices converged for Pearson to apply his theory that a cost-efficient rail option could open more of New England to ocean salt. As the pandemic put energy prices in to a nosedive, the final pieces of the puzzle fell into place. Curtailed fracking activity in the Marcellus shale formation idled thousands of frac-sand railcars, which became available for pennies on the dollar. Saltine Warrior acquired 15 cars, lettered SLWX. The ongoing rush from coal also left decommissioned coal-fired generator plants vacant. Brayton Point in Fall River MA had received its fuel by water, and its unloading facilities remained intact, waiting for a new bulk commodity to land. Now, Pearson’s salt-laden ships from Egypt arrive at Brayton Point in Fall River MA, to be unloaded by Patriot Stevedoring. Once drayed to P&W in East Providence and loaded on to the SLWX cars, the cargo takes advantage of GWI’s North-South New England rail network.

Opportunities far — and surprisingly near

Pearson sees plenty of opportunities to fill cracks in the current distribution network. “I don’t need to be a Cargill selling a million tons  … [there] are niches available” for a low-cost operator, says Pearson. “[My system is] a toe in the water, we’ll see. I believe I’ve found a model at least for me to work”

Pearson’s short-haul regional moves confound the common wisdom of rail economics, which Pearson explains as, “you have to move at least 500 miles to make it worthwhile, well that’s not necessarily true. What matters is being the low cost supplier.”

Vermont Railways has been enthusiastic about the new supply route. Its Shelburne VT salt shed took Saltine Warrior’s first railed load. Starting at the Fall River pile, 20 truckloads were drayed to P&W, connecting with NECR at Willamantic CT, GMCR at Bellows Falls VT, then VRS at Rutland VT to Shelburne.

Pass the Salt
Saltine Warrior’s cars made a total of twelve moves on the
short-haul journey from East Providence to Burlington:

1. P&W switcher picks up at east Providence and brings to Valley Falls RI yard
2. P&W train picks up Valley Falls cars and brings to Worcester
3. P&W switcher in Worcester
4. P&W train takes cars to Plainfield CT
5. P&W train takes cars to Willimantic CT
6. NECR train takes cars from Willimantic to Palmer MA
7. NECR train takes cars north from Palmer to White River Junction VT
8. NECR train takes cars from White River Junction to Bellows Falls
9. GMRC switcher in Bellows Falls
10. GMRC train takes train to Rutland VT
11. VRS switcher in Rutland
12. VTR train RDBD takes cars to Burlington VT
13. VTR switcher takes cars to Shelburn VT

The recent purchase of New England Southern Railroad by Vermont Rail System opens another “new” opportunity. NEGS terminates in Lincoln NH, which is the southern point of New Hampshire DOT District 1, which uses 40,000 tons of salt annually. Pearson doesn’t have an agreement yet, but feels that rail looks good, compared to 1000 trucks plying the state’s scenic Franconia roads to ski country.

Northern Maine pays dearly for road salt. Aroostook County uses 40,000 tons annually at $70-90 a ton, plus trucking from either traditional sources, or occasional landed piles at Searsport or Portland.

Connecticut has long benefitted from ocean salt, thanks to good interior access from its long coastline, and the underutilized New London State Pier. But that property will soon be devoted to offshore wind development, displacing as much as 150,000 tons of yearly-landed salt. Pearson has “established a partner with all of the facilities necessary to operate a terminal on P&W in eastern Connecticut.” The state’s strict enforcement of its 80,000-lb. trucking limit also makes rail more attractive.

(The Saltine Warrior was a legendary Native American tribal chief in the Syracuse NY region, existing chiefly in the lore of Syracuse University. A Saltine Warrior mascot represented the Syracuse Orangemen athletic teams between 1931 and 1978, when the caricature was deposed as demeaning to Native Americans. – Ed.)

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Associate Editor; Consultant for Rail Planning & Development
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Christopher has 15 years of railroad experience, starting as a Conductor on Cape Cod and 15 years of public policy advocacy and outreach work. Christopher is Executive Director of Vermont Rail Action Network, communicating the vision of better trains to elected and government officials, community leaders and the public. Christopher is a consultant for freight and passenger planning and development projects including operating planning, federal grant applications, marketing, and public outreach.