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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