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    Everett-Vancouver: a railroad bottleneck if coal trains increase

    A new study shows passenger rail service from Seattle to Vancouver, B.C., can expand. But additional freight traffic from coal trains would create a problem for a stretch of single-track rail, landslides, and low-roof tunnels.

    An Amtrak train arrives in Bellingham (2008).

    An Amtrak train arrives in Bellingham (2008). Sue Frause/Crosscut Flickr group

    One of Washington's premier scenic drives runs along the bluffs overlooking Chuckanut Bay south of Bellingham. Chuckanut Drive also overlooks a single-track mainline rail line, running between the road and the bay and containing four tunnels that are proving to be a major obstacle to plans to expand either freight or passenger service on the railroad.

    The rail line — listed as one of the top scenic trips on the entire Amtrak system — is the immovable object that, at some point in the future, will force policy makers in the region to make some huge and difficult priority decisions.

    Passenger-rail supporters gained some support for their cause this week with the release of a study by the Cascadia Center, a division of Seattle's Discovery Institute, that supports expansion of passenger trains between Seattle and Vancouver, B.C., from two to three round-trips a day, plus a regional commuter train that would make two trips daily from Bellingham (or perhaps Blaine) to Everett, where it would hook up with Sounder trains.

    But the study, six months in the making at a cost of $150,000, did not move into the controversial territory of future freight plans, in particular a proposal to triple the number of mile-and-a-half long coal trains running through the corridor en route to a proposed export terminal north of Bellingham.

    Wilbur Smith Associates of Columbia, S.C. utilized Rail Traffic Controller (RTC) software, an industry-standard product that simulates train operations, but was forced to work with current (as of November 2010) rail traffic only, as Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad would not speculate on the impact of traffic if the terminal is opened. The software to study train traffic is dependent upon data supplied by the railroads.

    BNSF says it runs a daily average of 15 trains on the line from Everett to Canada; the railroad won't say how many are unit coal trains but local observers generally agree that three full and three empty coal trains run daily.

    "There is room for three (passenger) round trips and two regional trips daily," Cascadia Center director Bruce Agnew told Crosscut, "under current conditions, and I stress that term. If we triple the number of unit coal trains, those assumptions are weakened."

    A comprehensive analysis of the impact of added coal trains on passenger service will likely await formal filing of permits by Gateway Pacific Terminal and determination of the scope of environmental studies by the Washington State Department of Ecology and Whatcom County. Community groups have demanded that the studies include the impact of additional rail traffic along the BNSF line.

    Cascadia's study, three volumes plus appendixes, was released by the Whatcom Council of Governments, which sponsored the study with a state grant. The COG has been actively seeking additional passenger trains.

    The study produced two major recommendations. In addition to support for expanded passenger-rail traffic, the study recommended a new public-private partnership to advance rail in the corridor north of Everett.

    Addition of a third through train to Vancouver has long been advocated by passenger-rail organizations, and Amtrak traffic continues to increase, although it was slowed this year because of numerous landslides both north and south of the U.S.-Canada border. What is new in this report is the proposal that two daily trains run from Blaine or Bellingham to Everett, to link up with the Sounder commuter system. Cascadia also suggests these trains be Diesel Multiple Unit (DMU) locomotives, rather than the Talgo trains utilized by Amtrak. The DMU trains would be cheaper to acquire and operate, Agnew said, adding that they have passed rigid emission tests in the Bay area of California, where air-quality rules are strict.

    Hopes continue for high-speed rail in the corridor, but costs of bringing the system up to standard are substantial. The report notes: "The high-speed track improvements and associated facilities identified for the three areas from Bellingham to Blaine, Burlington to Bellingham and Marysville to Mount Vernon, (would be) expensive to implement — almost $800 million in 2002 prices. Their stated purpose (is) to allow the passenger trains to reach 110 mph on these stretches, thus reducing the travel time to Vancouver, B.C."

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    Posted Thu, Jul 28, 7:26 a.m. Inappropriate

    I see in the article just another attack on the coal port in Bellingham. Right or wrong, coal trains will head north, no question, whether they stop in Bellingham, head north to a rumored expanded Roberts Banks or Prince George, they will head north.

    BNSF has no internal rule regarding landslides, it is an FRA rule. BNSF timetables refer to the rule. Landslides have occurred between Seattle and Everett since the rails were placed in the late 1800s, but never with the regularity of the last two decades. Zoning is an issue, drainage is an issue. The FRA as of 2009 is reconsidering the rule, but has yet to issue any revisions. Seattle to Everett is not an isolated case.

    Despite the headlines, tunnel floors will not have to be lowered for coal trains, they would for double stacks. (You usually lower the floor of a tunnel rather than raise the roof, due to structural considerations.)

    Yes, BNSF and Amtrak have somewhat of an adversarial relationship. All freight railroads do. They have to let Amtrak on the rails that they believe they should have complete control over. However, they do get along; both parties make a decent attempt at an awkward situation.

    Rather than muddy the waters about a coal port in Bellingham with vague stories that mislead, let us just address whether we want to get money from shipping coal to China or do we want to let Canada get the revenue. China will get the coal, they will pollute they will do harm to everybody in the world with their massive air pollution. It will happen. Nevertheless, we still want cheap China goods in our Wal-Mart, and that is how those goods will get here. Don’t want worldwide coal fired air pollution? Do not buy Chinese manufactured goods, it is that simple.

    Posted Thu, Jul 28, 8:24 a.m. Inappropriate

    I don't see where shipping coal out of Bellingham is set in stone. Perhaps Gray's Harbor (Aberdeen/Hoquiam) should be looked at. It has existing rail infrastructure, and long trains can possibly be better accomodated down the Columbia River and then north through Vancouver and Centralia, than over Stevens Pass, through Marysville and up along the Chuckanut. Also, I suspect the local population there would be much more amenable to the economic boost, with fewer NIMBY's along the line, freshly moved out from the city; who, if they noticed a railroad along thier property line at all, figured it was for the once-weekly passage of the Hooterville Cannonball.


    Posted Thu, Jul 28, 8:35 a.m. Inappropriate


    I think you mean Prince Rupert, not Prince George. (Prince George is far inland.) The Ridley Terminal at Prince Rupert is not easily served by rail via Bellingham, so coal trains bound for there probably won't affect B'ham in any case.

    As for Gateway coal getting diverted to other ports in BC, color me highly skeptical. There are only two operating coal terminals in southern BC: Neptune (in North Vancouver) and Westshore (at Roberts Bank). Even given very generous assumptions about possible expansion and throughput capacity those two ports combined could only serve a small fraction of the volumes talked about for Gateway.

    Plus, Westshore can't really expand it's footprint thanks to its limiting physical geography (an exposed peninsula jutting into the Straight of Georgia). It's recently done a big equipment upgrade that did increase capacity, but we're still not talking about anywhere near enough to serve what the Gateway folks want.

    Excellent article, Floyd. This is the kind of in-depth reporting that keeps me coming back to Crosscut.

    Eric de Place
    Sightline Institute

    Posted Thu, Jul 28, 8:39 a.m. Inappropriate


    Great coverage. Good story. MORE!

    Ross KAne
    Warm Beach


    Posted Thu, Jul 28, 9:03 a.m. Inappropriate

    Where is the funding for additional passenger trains going to come from?Given the nation's and state's budgets and economies and politics, there isn't even a vague hope that it will come from there ... there are more urgent needs for expenditures.

    But things like the Bellingham coal port would help the exconomy and help sustain some of the needed expenditures for other things.

    Coal WILL be mined and shipped to world markets, whether or not Bellingham is used. Once loaded onto trains, the distance and routes those trains travel are not economically significant. The coal can go through BC's existing and potential new ports, or the Columbia river, or ports in California, or new ports in Mexico.

    The choice? Washington could welcome the added jobs and revenue, or give them to others.


    Posted Thu, Jul 28, 10:47 a.m. Inappropriate

    Lifer is correct when he notes the Chuckanut tunnels serve coal trains without adding to the vertical clearance; the clearance is needed for double-stack cars and BNSF has listed lowering the tunnel floors as a priority for the line’s future. The Cascadia report is not an in-depth look at rail capacity; it does not go beyond the WSDOT study of 2009.

    There is a serious capacity problem, however, particularly from Everett north, and is widely recognized by anyone who has looked at the data—or the lines. Chuckanut is one of the serious bottlenecks and it cannot be fixed without major expenditures. Bridges north of Everett and at Burlington are also problems, but can be fixed, given funding.

    And that, of course, is where the issue gets difficult. Americans have not sufficienbtly invested in non-highway infrastructure since World War II; we have preferred to fight useless and expensive wars instead. At the same time the population and economic growth in areas like the Pacific Northwest has demanded more infrastructure. Earlier this month, the big Tesoro Anacortes Refinery announced a deal to bring daily 100-car trainloads of oil from North Dakota into the refinery; this is equal to adding another two (loaded and empty) coal trains to those cited above.

    Rail lines are a prime example. In a perfect world, Amtrak would have its own tracks. Europe, thanks to the massive bombing and havoc of two world wars, had to rebuild infrastructure and as a result it has a functioning passenger rail system. We do not, Despite funding at federal and state levels, the system has not matched growth.

    That makes some type of priority-setting essential. If we add at least daily 18 round-trips of coal trains at least a mile and a half in length (to the six already using the line), on a single-track mainline with sidings, can the line handle that and still provide even its limited passenger service and serve its existing patrons dealing in lumber, agriculture products and other mixed cargoes?
    We don’t know the answer and Cascadia did not attempt to find out, but at some point the region must face the fact that our rail infrastructure is limited and finite and, if we continue to have unlimited growth infinitely, we will need to set priorities on the rail system. Coal may or may not be a priority in such a scenario, but the capacity issue cannot be kicked down the rails forever.

    Posted Thu, Jul 28, 2:17 p.m. Inappropriate

    This is a fine article--but...

    Why is our tax money going to the Discovery/Cascadia Institute? These are the deep, critical thinkers who brought you "Intelligent Design":


    ...and the deep bore tunnel.

    In what world should a coal export company be dictating public transportation policy?

    Why on earth should we be considering a public/private partnership for something so basic to society as high speed rail travel, which has been proven successful over and over in the rest of the world?

    Are we really ready to abandon our society to our corporate overlords?


    Posted Thu, Jul 28, 4:01 p.m. Inappropriate

    My dumb, yes, Prince Rupert NOT Prince George.

    Floyd M.
    I do agree with you that we have not done enough to encourage non-highway infrastructure. I would also include non-airline infrastructure also in your assessment. Road weights have gone from 68,000 lbs. to 80,000 lbs in 35 years for standard semi trucks and the roads show it. Encouraging BNSF and others to double track critical right of way is important, unfortunately, NIMBYS are already fighting any rail improvement just about everywhere. Convincing people on both sides that work needs to be done is almost impossible when minds are set in concrete.

    In Trains magazine just arriving today, we see congress wants to kill Amtrak completely by increment. Why?? Airlines are faster and they do not have to have government infrastructure. I guess congress has never heard of the FAA.

    Posted Thu, Jul 28, 4:04 p.m. Inappropriate

    Interesting article; thank you. You do not say so but the limitations of the existing rail lines north of Everett do argue in favor of the Longview export terminal, does it not? perhaps not so much as an alternative but as a valuable supplement. I would be dismayed if passenger rail service, which I regard as of distinctly lesser importance, were to interfere with the freight traffic (including the coal trains). I think Lifer explains the larger choice very well. We export carbon emitting airplanes, at least as many as we can, don't we? we burn coal for something like 40% of the electrical generation in this country, If we can sell the damned coal let's do it.


    Posted Thu, Jul 28, 9:53 p.m. Inappropriate

    andy asks, "Are we really ready to abandon our society to our corporate overlords?" Where have you been; you're too late. See, e.g., http://www.amazon.com/World-Systems-Analysis-Introduction-Franklin-Center/dp/0822334429

    kieth proclaims, "If we can sell the damned coal let's do it." So, since we're sending the global climate, and therefore civilization, off a cliff with business as usual, that means we should facilitate others to do it faster? Idiotic, IMO. Every pound of carbon left buried and unburned is a net benefit.


    Posted Thu, Jul 28, 10:42 p.m. Inappropriate

    It is entirely healthy for underdeveloped Third World economies to compete briskly for the privilege of selling raw materials to the Chinese Empire. The successful suitor can expect to receive steady low-paying work for the natives and attractive bribes for the local elites. But it might help if the wise leaders of What-Come County, as a modest display of good will, changed the prosaic name Ferndale to the more vibrant Maoburg. The Chinese are sensitive to nuances, and even a small gesture such as this could produce the decisive edge.


    Posted Fri, Jul 29, 6:38 p.m. Inappropriate

    Some clarification on the piece. Our report should not be construed as a choice between increased passenger or increased freight. As the author said we did not address future freight activity - only the trains operating today. BNSF Railway was very cooperative in providing current information. Obviously, any significant increase in train activity changes the technical "modeling assumptions" we used to justify three more passenger rail roundtrips. The report stresses the future opportunities for investment in the corridor for both.

    Also, our report recommends Diesel Multiple Unit (DMU) trains only for any potential regional rail service between Everett and Bellingham - not cross border Amtrak Cascades service to Vancouver, B.C. While the capital acquisition costs of the DMU's compared to the current Talgo equipment are less, the operational costs may not be for a variety of reasons. Finally, a previous study - not ours - looked at the Burlington Sumas line for double stacked service - we said it was too expensive to upgrade.

    Bruce Agnew, Cascadia


    Posted Sun, Jul 31, 4:03 p.m. Inappropriate

    When the pollution (mercury, particulates, etc.) from burning coal in China blows across the Pacific and rains down on us, we have a choice. Do we want only be able to say, "well, duh, we did it to ourselves," or would we rather be able to blame someone else, such as the Australians? Of course, that's only the more classic pollutants, not greenhouse gases.

    I realize that making moral arguments is passe in the modern world of worship of the holy market above all, but can anyone with a straight face really say that destroying our own life support systems is justified because if we don't, someone else will? As my mother used to say in response to "Everyone's doing it:"

    "And if they jumped off a cliff . . ."?

    Well, we are now standing on the edge, have one leg stretched out in space, and our balance is shifting towards the abyss below. The issue is not whether we have shiny new shoes when we fall. The issue is whether we get the hell back from the edge!

    Steve E.

    Posted Mon, Aug 1, 11:58 a.m. Inappropriate

    A BNSF official recently said in a meeting I attended that coal train traffic would double, not triple. Which is correct?


    Posted Mon, Aug 1, 4:49 p.m. Inappropriate

    I don't really get this. The article states BNSF currently runs 3 coal trains per day north to Vancouver BC's coal terminal. I guess these come over Stevens Pass, though that is unclear. Why build a coal terminal near Bellingham? Why not build it near Everett, or even in Everett, so trains don't have to drive the extra miles to Vancouver or Bellingham? Is it just too politically difficult to build it in Everett, or is BNSF looking for someone else to pay to upgrade its line from Everett to Bellingham?

    This proposed coal terminal starts at a major disadvantage already, in competition with the proposed Arch Coal terminal at Longview. There, trains get to come along the sea level route in the Columbia Gorge. Coal trains are about the heaviest trains there are--they are hauling rocks--so the Gorge route seems to have significant savings in fuel and time over the Stevens Pass route.

    Posted Wed, Aug 3, 2:36 a.m. Inappropriate

    Just think, in serious countries passenger trains aren't the mistreated orphans they are here, forced to wait for coal trains, pig trains, garbage trains. In serious countries passenger trains actually have their own, dedicated rights of way - can you believe it? It's true, I've seen it, I tell you it's true!

    And what are we building? Car tunnels under Seattle that will hardly benefit anyone except the people who build them. I suppose we might get real trains again in this country someday, once fuel becomes expensive enough to make car travel expensive, and to convince the RR companies that there is again profit to be made in hauling people. But not till then.

    Posted Wed, Aug 3, 10:29 a.m. Inappropriate

    The railroad is really good at squeezing extra capacity out of the system they have. Five years ago Seattle and Tacoma were concerned because it seemed that the rail system east would be maxed out with container trains, there were howls to raise the Stampede Pass tunnel (remember those?), there was hand wringing and fear that the system would gridlock. The railroad made some system improvements, lengthened some sidings, and then made their container trains 30 oercent longer and started running them south through the Columbia Gorge (you don't need so many engines to haul the trains over the passes) and lo and behold rail system capacity was increased thirty percent! True there are bottlenecks north of Everett but don't discount the railroad's ability to squeeze whatever they need from the system to handle the traffic.
    As regards Prince Rupert, it is far away and a long trip but the coal goes there now and will go in the future as that facility expands, and one reason why the trains will pass Bellingham is that route gives BNSF a longer (more lucrative) route than handing off the trains in eastern Montana into Canada. There is a lot of press arguing that Canadian coal terminals cannot expand and those statements are flat out wrong - if the market is there the expansion will happen.
    And as regards those asking why not ship coal from Everett or Gray's Harbor or somewhere south, it's all about water depth and ship size. The Cherry Point terminal can handle 250,000 ton ships which means that the cost per ton to ship coal from there is 35 percent less than from smaller ships at Gray's Harbor or in the Columbia (the difference between 70-80 feet water depth at Cherry Point as compared to 40-45 feet elsewhere). And this means something for grain, too. Yes, there is a lot of grain capacity on the Columbia and in Tacoma and Seattle, but if one built a grain elevator at Cherry Point you could again handle the bigger ships and greatly reduce shipping costs, and at some point those economies of scale may come into play.


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