While natural gas is not considered a chemical, it is a feedstock for the chemical industry. Natural gas is used to make chemical such as ethaline, propylene, and methanol – which are all chemicals that are widely used in manufacturing to create items that we use on a daily basis.
Chemicals derived from natural gas tend to be manufactured near supplies. While Beaver County, PA has an ethane cracker plant currently under construction, there are other local chemical producing plants utilizing natural gas. According to the AAR, the chemical/energy hubs near the Ohio River Valley, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia are already the third largest chemical production markets served by railroads; this is before Shell’s ethane cracker plant begins production.
The Association of American Railroads (AAR) estimates that chemical freight makes up nearly 8% of the country’s rail freight capacity. Chemical transportation accounts for $10.5 billion in rail revenues in the United States annually, and this revenue stream continues to grow as rail traffic for other commodities declines. The AAR reported a nearly 3.8% growth rate in 2018, which equates to nearly 61,000 rail car loads of chemicals added; over all, the cumulative chemical growth from 2013 to present has been about 12 percent in total railcars while other commodities have declined 10% during the same time frame.
This trend in rail freight already caused some negative effects across western Pennsylvania. Every train car that carries chemicals must undergo stricter airbrake testing. In Bradford, this extra inspection combined with switching operations has caused hefty traffic delays. While train traffic can be linked to industrial growth, rail road infrastructure has not been updated to keep up with modern automotive traffic patterns. As the chemical industry continues to grow, the region may see more traffic delays.