Commodity: Wind turbine components
Customer: Multiple wind component OEMs Location: Great Bend, Kansas

The individual Watco divisions, Transportation, Terminals & Ports, Mechanical, and Supply Chain, all work hard every day to serve our customers. When they work together to create complex solutions for a customer, though, big things can happen.

That’s the case with the Pawnee Rock Laydown Yard, near Pawnee Rock, Kansas, between Great Bend and Larned. It began as a small, 23-care storage yard for wind turbine components at the Great Bend Municipal Airport. With the cooperation of Watco Supply Chain Services (WSCS), the Kansas & Oklahoma Railroad (KO), and Watco Terminals & Ports (WTPS), the operation quickly grew in size and scope, and its success opened doors to other opportunities.

“The project went from zero to 60 essentially. We prepared as best we could, and all of a sudden, they said, ‘The first train is on the way.’ It was kind of a scramble, but the supply chain team and the K&O team worked closely together to make it happen, and we quickly ran out of space,” said KO Commercial Manager Casey Harbour.

The entire operation now includes the airport storage, 110,000 square feet of indoor storage space, and the most recent addition, the Pawnee Rock yard. The yard offers around 225 acres of laydown space and can hold nearly 5,000 turbine components. A wye was built off the KO’s line to help accommodate increased rail traffic into the facility.

A wind turbine hub is loaded for delivery at the Pawnee Rock Laydown Yard in central Kansas while other components wait in storage before being shipped out.

“We didn’t think it was going to be as big as it is, so we put it there at the airport, and in January of 2017, the first truck came rolling in. Initially, it was just Barth (West, WSCS VP of Operations, Railroad Logistics) and me, and (WSCS Railroad Logistics Team Lead) Austin Norris. We had a contractor doing our crane work, and when we had trucks coming, we’d drive up from the Springdale (Arkansas) office, meet the trucks, sign the bill of lading, set it down and come back. We did that for about six months. Eventually, trucks were coming every day and we had to hire a full staff. It went from one or two trucks a day to 50 trucks a day and trains, and we quickly outgrew the airport,” said Paul Williams, WSCS Rail Logistics director of operations.

This all started with a phone call our customer made to Harbour inquiring about our capabilities to handle the components. He later mentioned it to Williams and WSCS President Eric Wolfe, because they had a background of working with this customer. They in turn reached out, and the wheels were set in motion.

Our team transports all the main pieces of the wind turbines. This includes the large blades and tower sections, as well as the nacelles, which contain the gears and generator, and the hubs that connect the blades to the nacelle. Components arrive to the KO at interchanges in Wichita, Kan., and Hutchinson, Kan., depending on the type of components and their points of origin. Once the KO delivers these parts, that’s where the WTPS team begins its work. They handle the rigging and crane work when components arrive or are set to depart the yards. Many of the components also arrive from overseas at Watco’s Greens Port Industrial Terminals in Houston, Texas, where our team discharges them from vessels onto Class I trains.

Some of the turbine components arrive at Watco’s Greens Port Industrial Terminals in Houston, Texas, where they are loaded on to trains. Some of the components go to the Pawnee Rock yard for storage.

“It’s been an awesome move from the rail perspective. We’re able to spot in a large cut of cars and our team doesn’t have to stay with the train to move it through a fixed unloading point,” Harbour said. “We just come every night and spot the new cut of cars in there. When you can add shuttle traffic, it’s much more efficient. It’s been a big boost for the KO and our continued efforts to diversify our commodity mix.”

Watco Supply Chain Services oversees the entire movement of the components, from their origins to final destinations after leaving the Pawnee yard, tracks and performs the required maintenance, and manages the relationship with our customers.

The maintenance is a large part of operations at the yard. The customers used to send their own employees to perform it, but as the yard grew and more regular maintenance was required, it made sense for Watco to offer that service. It’s required by the manufacturers and ranges from simple tasks like power washing bases of the blades, where they connect to the hub, to an array of more complex procedures performed on the nacelles. Our team changes the oil, greases and turns the gears, and uses a generator to give the batteries a charge.

“Every component has a maintenance schedule,” West said. “Some items have to be serviced every month, other items have to be done every quarter, and so on. We’ve got that listed out, and depending how long those components are under our care, we have to follow those schedules.”

A Pawnee Rock yard team member power washes the base of the a wind turbine blade as part of scheduled maintenance require by the manufacturer.

Their success in central Kansas has created new opportunities around the country. Last year, WSCS started an 80-acre yard in Minot, North Dakota, to serve as a staging area for a new wind farm consisting of 77 turbines. There’s a small team there for security and maintenance. Team members from the Tioga, N.D., terminal also assist with the unloading of the components.

“It’s just taken off like wildfire out there,” Williams said.

The WSCS team is also finalizing a multi-million dollar project in Oregon, and is working on one of the largest U.S. wind plays of 2020 in Hobbs, New Mexico. Watco plans to lease land at an old U.S. Army airfield and have the components arrive via Watco’s Texas & New Mexico Railway. Other manufacturers are taking advantage of the Pawnee Rock yard as well. One has already began shipping the fixtures, the equipment used to secure the components to the ground while in storage, to the site. West and Williams say there are five or six other large projects the team is looking at as well.

“We feel pretty confident we can win another two or three on top of what we’ve got already, so we feel pretty giddy about it. It just started off as a 23-acre deal. We said, ‘Let’s get in here, let’s get it figured out,’ to now we’re running two full time yards in Kansas, a facility in North Dakota, we’ve got around thirty team members, and in 2020 we’re going to grow even more,” said West.

They attribute the success to the team’s willingness to go the extra mile and provide a solution to whatever the customers throw at them.

“One thing that our customer told us they liked about us, but kind of scared them too, was that we never told them no. After the first few loads were successful, they kept sending more, seeing how much we could handle. They tried to drown us. We never said no. We just figured out a way to get it done, and they really liked that. They know that if other service providers get backed up, they can turn to us without even having to ask if we can handle it,” said West.