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Everett-Vancouver: a railroad bottleneck if coal trains increase

An Amtrak train arrives in Bellingham (2008). Credit: 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.”

To approach funding challenges, consultants recommended that Northwest Washington counties, local governments and private stakeholders form a FAST-North consortium to advance rail improvements in Snohomish, Skagit, Whatcom, and Island counties. The organization would be patterned after the FAST Corridor already operating in the central Puget Sound area, which has coordinated some $568 million in rail improvements. Two meetings have already been held looking toward a FAST-North organization; among those involved are Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon and Bellingham Mayor Dan Pike, former manager of the FAST Corridor in Central Puget Sound.

“We will need to innovate funding in the present economic climate,” Agnew stated, “Local governments just don’t have the money for large projects.” The days of earmarked dollars for projects of this sort are endangered at the federal and state levels, and an organization that includes both public and private stakeholders is seen as a way of developing revenue, as was the case in the FAST Corridor. Agnew noted that much of the needed rail upgrades could be done for the cost of a major freeway interchange.

The cost of upgrading the system to handle increased traffic is highly dependent upon dealing with two serious bottlenecks: the Chuckanut Drive section from Bow to Bellingham, and areas of heavy landslides in Snohomish County.

Cascadia’s report contained no magic bullet for the landslide issue, which has been blamed on zoning and development practices that allow for cutting of trees on bluffs overlooking rail lines, and building too close to bluff lines in order to catch a Sound view. Mukilteo Mayor Joe Marine and Bellingham Mayor Pike have suggested that heavy rail traffic may contribute to bank instability, but the Cascadia study did not employ geo-technical consultants.

Cascadia did support, however, asking BNSF for more flexibility on barring passenger trains for 48 hours after a landslide, regardless of its severity. All Aboard Washington Director Lloyd Flem told Cascadia, “the 48 hour stoppage is internal BNSF policy — not federal law — and freight trains are allowed to operate soon after the tracks are cleared.”

The report did list improvements needed to allow added passenger trains while maintaining the current level of freight service. They include sidings at Mount Vernon, Stanwood, and Bellingham; some have already been built or are planned under 2011 state legislation.

Chuckanut’s four tunnels come in for attention. Increasing the vertical dimension of the tunnels is one of BNSF’s priorities; cost would be at least $1.9 million. But Agnew said conversations with shippers do not place a high priority on double-stack freight trains, which are the major reason for raising tunnel roofs.

Cascadia also noted that double-stack trains could be routed north to Canada by utilizing an existing BNSF line from Burlington to Sumas, on the border. The route has no vertical barriers for double-stack trains and would also ease congestion on the Canadian side of the border. But the so-called Highway 9 route has been fiercely opposed by rural Whatcom residents. The Highway 9 route has also been suggested as a way to bypass Bellingham with coal trains destined for Gateway Pacific, but that would require construction of a new spur from Lynden to the terminal, which could cost millions of dollars. The Highway 9 option remains alive, but has been rejected by BNSF and residents along the line, making it an unlikely future route.

Other obstacles along the Everett-Vancouver line may be more easily fixed, given funding. A high priority is given to the replacement of the century-old Skagit River bridge at Burlington; the city is seeking an $11 million federal grant for engineering work on the project. Funding for the structure is unclear, however; BNSF has said it won’t participate. The role of the bridge in flooding (by causing debris backup) may prompt some additional federal funds, however.

The Cascadia Center gives considerable attention to the Blaine border crossing, where both American and Canadian customs practices slow passenger and freight traffic, causing serious backups in Blaine. New trackage on both sides of the border is recommended, along with changing some post-9/11 inspection practices.

The study also points to the importance of Canadian trade and rail policies in examining through-traffic from Vancouver south. Rail traffic serving the huge Westshore coal export terminal south of Vancouver has become so intense that trains have backed up as far south as Bellingham because of the traffic. BNSF’s six daily coal unit trains are among the users of Canadian Pacific lines leading to Westshore.

Canada’s Asia Pacific Gateway and Trade Corridor, launched in 2006, has drawn an increasing share of American commodities exported to Asia, adding to the pressure on U.S. shippers to expand freight rail systems in this country. BNSF operates in both nations, and its coal trains move across the border at Blaine and in the Midwest, hauling coal from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana. BNSF would service the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal north of Bellingham and also the proposed Millennium terminal at Longview.

The Cascadia Center report, funded in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, joins a host of public and private studies on how to improve both freight and passenger rail service in Washington. The most recent reports date to 2002 and include the Washington State Department of Transportation’s freight-rail plan released in 2009. The studies share the commonality of great hopes and limited resources and, as pressures build for both freight and rail on a single system with finite capacity, analysts are also likely to face challenges of setting priorities along the tracks.

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