Coal exports could block passenger-rail expansion

The corporations involved with a proposed Bellingham-area coal export facility could get a nearly free ride on rail upgrades. Or the coal traffic might just kill hopes for a greener form of travel.
A train runs along Bellingham Bay

A train runs along Bellingham Bay Courtesy of Paul K. Anderson/Chuckanut Conservancy

Did anyone see this train coming? I mean, we looked both ways and then, bang, there it was, knocking down everything in its way. What happened?

For more than a decade, state rail planners worked on plans for high-speed Amtrak from Portland to Vancouver, B.C. and a freight rail plan based on statements from the BNSF railroad that it saw no big changes ahead. “From a freight perspective, BNSF believes sufficient capacity exists for the foreseeable future,” state freight rail planners said as late as 2009.

Meanwhile, planners in railside communities such as Bellingham and Marysville aggressively forged ahead with “green” ideas that sometimes co-existed with the tracks.

What happened about three years ago was that the world woke up to China and India growing like crazy —and it was all based on burning coal. Suddenly America’s coal giants had a market to replace the U.S. coal plants that were being shut down to combat global warming. The coal giants could sell their coal to Asia.

But they had no West Coast ports to ship their coal. They did have an eager railroad, Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) with its new deep-pocket owner, Warren Buffett.

That was the marriage made in ... well, choose your word based on your worldview ... and that was the train we didn’t see coming.

State rail reports — a freight rail plan in 2009, Amtrak long-range plans in 2006, and 2008 and even a Discovery Institute study in 2011 — simply didn’t reflect the new train in town. All were based on a 1992 plan for high-speed passenger rail.

So we are aggressively seeking federal funds — the only game in town right now — for a high-speed rail that is problematic unless someone comes up with big money to build a separate track and divorce the system from BNSF. Certainly that is true north of Seattle, where major bottlenecks persist on the present system.

The serious nature of adjusting to the new world of massive coal unit trains to feed the Chinese dragon was illustrated Monday (May 7) in a presentation to Bellingham City Council by Jack Delay, president of CommunityWise Bellingham (CWB), which bills itself as working to inform the community about impacts of a planned coal-export terminal at Cherry Point, north of Bellingham. SSA Marine of Seattle wants to export 48 million tons of Powder River coal a year and already has a contract with Peabody Coal for half that tonnage.

Delay told council members that double-tracking the present BNSF rail lines through the heart of the city’s waterfront appears to be the priority of both the state’s rail planners and BNSF. Details are contained deep within appendixes of state rail plans, he said, and include massive disruptions to one of the city’s most popular parks as well as homes, businesses and future waterfront development. The cost of the project, labeled the “South Bellingham siding,” was estimated at $102.6 million back in 2006, when it appeared in state long-range plans for Amtrak. Another $2.3 million is planned to relocate a portion of the rail line that bisects a proposed new waterfront development.

CWB’s consultant, Transit Safety Management (TSM) is a national firm hired to examine ways added coal traffic might impact Bellingham. Their report concluded: “BNSF has made no public announcement of how it intends to handle the additional traffic, nor what infrastructure must be constructed to support it. It appears likely from examination of the infrastructure proposed in the WSDOT Long Range Plan for Amtrak Cascades, that the infrastructure solution developed for increased coal train traffic will probably be similar.”

In other words, as Amtrak high-speed rail gains taxpayer funds and moves ahead to build its dream, those who benefit from coal exports will also ride the tracks. A siding built in Bellingham, grade separation in Marysville or Edmonds, or a river crossing in Burlington can be expected to be paid for by public money but provide much of the benefit to BNSF, Peabody Coal, SSA Marine, and Goldman Sachs (49 percent owner of SSA).


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Comments:

Posted Tue, May 8, 1:17 a.m. Inappropriate

Author Richard Florida postulates that it is the rise of the Mega Regions that create value in the global economy. These regions are characterized by urban populations where the free-flow of individuals and ideas create the business environment that permits innovation.

Florida identifies the Cascadia Region which spans from the south in central Oregon and up to the north to Vancouver BC as one of North America's Mega Regions. With global companies such as Nike, T-Mobile, Amazon, Boeing, Microsoft, and the myriad of bio-tech firms, this region is gaining a reputation as one where innovation prevails. Florida places Cascadia as sixteenth place in the world at creating patents.

Such Mega Regions demand a mobile populace for the exchange of ideas and innovation to occur. So it would be absolute foolishness to chase low value export jobs such as coal at the expense of high value knowledge based jobs. Mega Regions demand mobility to be a creator of value and to remain competitive in the global economy.

High speed rail is absolutely key to keeping the region competitive. We need to be able to travel easily between the central business disticts of Vancouver, Bellingham, Seattle, Portland and Eugene.

Posted Tue, May 8, 7:33 a.m. Inappropriate

As important as passenger rail would be to our region, it isn't a profitable business and BNSF owns their trackage of rights-of-way.

And let's not forget that the businesses in the region depend on rail to ship their goods and services to the rest of the country and to shipping ports. We should be encouraging more use of freight rail since it is far greener and cheaper than using trucks on long haul routes. Freight rail adds far more value to a regional economy than long distance passenger routes.

Besides, the ever increasing use of technology for meetings and collaboration belies the need for large numbers of people to be able to travel between Seattle and Portland in two hours. You can exchange ideas and innovations in a conference call with a connected smart board and video. You can't get a pair of shoes from the factory to your house without freight carriers.

High speed rail is a "nice to have", but it's not a "need to have".

talisker

Posted Tue, May 8, 7:50 a.m. Inappropriate

I disagree. Passenger rail right now has already stepped over into "need to have." In 20 years it will be "absolutely essential."

It's already alarming enough that the "Seattle slog" has grown from the King County line, to the 405 merge, to Everett, to Marysville, to Mount Vernon over the last 20 years. I don't want to see the Vancouver to Eugene corridor become like Burbank to San Diego.

It's only going to get more expensive to put in as real estate gets more expensive.

Goforride

Posted Tue, May 8, 11:24 a.m. Inappropriate

I do agree that we need more rail to support commuters, but I'm not so sure about high speed rail along longer routes. We should make sure that we preserve rail rights-of-way and stop parceling them out, though. And we need to be ready to convert some of those rights-of-way from recreational use back to rail. The old Milwaukee Road, which was electrified and clean, is still a great route over the Cascades and could be the basis for a high speed passenger run from Seattle over Snoqualmie to Spokane. There isn't room for it on the Stampede or Stevens Pass routes.

It's a challenge. More people means that there is more demand for freight. It also means increased capacity for moving people. We're either looking at gridlock, or a whole bunch of money being spent on new rail lines, new rail rights-of-way, and new freeway construction.

talisker

Posted Wed, May 9, 3:06 p.m. Inappropriate

Consider Talgo expansion to Denver via Pendleton, Boise, Ogden, SLC. The Amtrak Cascades Talgo-type HSR could run this route. Top speed is 135mph but average speed not much less than faster Acela-type HSR. Amtrak Cascades TALGO ride is IMO "smoother" than Acela.
Talgo design is doubly productive with reduced impact and cost.

This coal export deal is Wyoming dictating to Oregon & Warshintun how and where the money gets doled out. "Import Less -- Do NOT Export More" will actually balance the trade deficit. Tell Dick to take his cohorts coal and shove it.

Wells

Posted Tue, May 8, 7:44 a.m. Inappropriate

Every time I pull out a map of Washington and see the every-other-section checkerboard of public and private lands, I'm reminded that the railroads already got their subsidies.

I enthusiastically support taxpayer funded rail infrastructure in the same way I support taxpayer funded roads...just as long as each user pays fair-market value for use.

If it is technically feasable, I'd like to see the state fund the necessary improvement to make the Vancouver to Eugene coridor "be all it can be", but if there's a penny of taxpayer money, it should be for passenger rail with freight getting anything left over, the complete opposite of the 1972 Frankenstein's Railroad Amtrak is now.

Goforride

Posted Tue, May 8, 9:04 a.m. Inappropriate

Talisker makes a good point about the importance of rail freight. The problem here, however, is that even with a second track, the experts put the practical capacity of the line from Everett to Canada at 24 trains a day. If you assume 18 trains a day from GPT at buildout, plus continuation of about four coal trains a day now running to Westport, B.C., and even only two Amtrak runs, there you have it—a rail system serving entirely coal with a nod to Amtrak. Where will the other freight go that now moves on the line, nearly a dozen trains a day? A question firms like Boeing and smaller manufacturers and shippers might ponder. Doing the math is quite sobering. Capacity is a serious issue as we consider exporting that much coal through this part of the state.

Posted Tue, May 8, 10:08 a.m. Inappropriate

One thing that has always been challenging about this coal project and others is getting people to understand the scale of what is being proposed. Forty-eight does not seem like a large number and who really understands what a metric ton is? But when you understand that this weight of coal is equal to about 3.5 times the collective weight of every man, woman, and child in the United States you start to understand what is being contemplated. Thanks to Jack Delay and Patricia Decker and their team for this work and the numbers. And to Floyd also for laying out the story. This project and other carbon export schemes in the NW are about awareness, because once you get a view of the total package the sugar-coated image painted by proponents pales mightily in comparison to castor oil of reality.

Bob Ferris
Executive Director
Cascadia Wildlands

bobferris

Posted Tue, May 8, 10:26 a.m. Inappropriate

Excellent and timely article which captures the dilemma that regional transportation authorities face when they try to anticipate future needs and funding sources. The Whatcom County Council of Governments [WCOG} is our local planning group, and it has been absolutely blindsided by this enormous coal train proposal. If such local planning agencies are to be the least bit effective, there must be much better coordination with both higher government and advocates for private investment ventures, especially when those private ventures assume they will merely externalize the enormous impacts -harms and costs- to the general public to pay for. That is not what most citizens will willingly support, nor should they!
Those who will benefit should pay the costs! If that type of full cost accounting means the proposed coal terminal and its unit train supply system do not 'pencil out', then the project will fall under its own weight as this one should.

jwatts

Posted Tue, May 8, 10:59 a.m. Inappropriate

BNSF – All Our Eggs in One Basket?
Coal to China has become the 800 pound Godzilla, hanging onto signal towers along the BNSF ROW, grabbing passenger rail trains as they go by, with a defiant shake in the air. Well, maybe that’s a little over the top, but the impacts of just 9 more coal round trips to Cherry Point will reshape the Bellingham waterfront among other things. Here’s an article in today’s Herald.
http://www.bellinghamherald.com/2012/05/08/2513208/coal-trains-for-cherry-point-terminal.html
I wrote earlier this month in Seattle Transit Blog about the grossly high cost Sound Transit is willing to pay the BNSF for their track rights between Seattle and Everett. Applying federal cost effective calculations to the quarter billion paid for those 4 round trip slots, results in a cost per daily rider of $269 to the taxpayers. Fares recover only $4 bucks of that. Here’s the math at STB, fourth comment down.
http://seattletransitblog.com/2012/04/26/news-roundup-____/
My point is this. Public access to the BNSF tracks is extremely expensive and coal trains could make expansion of existing service nearly impossible. WSDOT has elected to take an incremental approach to financing more capacity along that single corridor. They should be looking to other corridors to provide for both intercity and intracity rail in the future, such as the Eastside rail along Lake Washington, or unused ROW between Olympia and Longview, or partnering with Oregon for rail along the west side of the Columbia River. Lots of possibilities exist, but we seem to be fixated on the BNSF to provide for us.
At what cost in the future?

007

Posted Tue, May 8, 1:14 p.m. Inappropriate

Applying federal cost effective calculations to the quarter billion paid for those 4 round trip slots, results in a cost per daily rider of $269 to the taxpayers. Fares recover only $4 bucks of that. Here’s the math at STB, fourth comment down.
http://seattletransitblog.com/2012/04/26/news-roundup-____/

I looked at your calculation there. It isn't a "cost . . . to the taxpayers" figure you derived (it's more of a "cost to Sound Transit per rider" calculation, although it ignores the debt service costs incurred by that government).

If you wanted to derive a "cost to the taxpayers" figure you would need to include the tax costs of the bonds (bond sale revenue was used for the capital costs of Sounder). Try running your calculation again, using the public tax costs. The number will be MUCH higher.

crossrip

Posted Tue, May 8, 11:25 a.m. Inappropriate

Excellent article by Floyd. Passenger rail is essential to a balanced growth and the transportation system here in Western Washington. We are blessed with some of the finest rail cars in the world manufactured in Seattle under the leadership of TALGO. Our ridership is up, the number of arrivals and departures is growing and our trains are running closer to 'on time' than ever before. Plus our fare box recovery beats any and all comers.

Industrial growth is very important but we must protect our passenger rail system. The future we face demands it.

Posted Tue, May 15, 11:45 a.m. Inappropriate

Passenger rail is a 19th Century technology promoted by nostalgic rail buffs. It solves nothing.

NotFan

Posted Tue, May 8, 1:05 p.m. Inappropriate

Two comments

1. Even with double tracks it does not take a rocket scientist to recognize that high speed trains traveling at >150 mph (real high speed) don't mix well with freight trains moving at ~40 mph. At the very best the lines are used inefficiently and the high-speed trains are subject to delays if they miss their slot or any part of the system gets disrupted.

2. I am not an advocate of coal but I highly doubt that any commercial enterprise is silly enough to be planning a coal export facility in Bellingham when the rail lines cannot accomodate their trains even if their fortunate enough to get the lines upgraded. There must be a plan to do this that the author is not aware of.

Posted Tue, May 8, 6:28 p.m. Inappropriate

AMTRAK trains do not travel at 150 mph, but additional roundtrips along the coastal corridor linking Portland, Seattle and Vancouver, BC are planned and necessary.

Bellingham is being targeted not so much for its rail access potential, but for its proximity to a deep water terminal capable of accommodating large, Capesize bulk carriers, which would transport the coal overseas.
That is a different problem whose ramifications may equal or dwarf the unit coal train supply logistics.

jwatts

Posted Wed, May 9, 7:22 a.m. Inappropriate

If Amtrak proponents wants to call its service high speed it should travel at high speed which everywhere else in the world is 150 mph. However, even if it is the current 80 mph it does not mix well with freight.

A deep water port is no use unless one can get the coal there so I am pretty sure that the commercial interests who want to build the port have a plan to get the coal trains there with the existing infrastructure and any planned upgrades.

Posted Sat, May 12, 10:15 a.m. Inappropriate

If they have a plan its that we'll subsidize them and pay for the necessary upgrades. That is, after all, the essence of modern resource capitalism: socialized costs and privatized profits.

Steve E.

Posted Wed, May 9, 2:08 p.m. Inappropriate

April 2011, Gregoire signs landmark legislation to transition Washington state from coal.

How is this an accomplishment if ten times more coal will be shipped out of Washington and burned with less regulation? That is sheer lunacy.

If coal is exported from the U.S., a rational policy would require a carbon tax on every ton shipped.

Posted Tue, May 15, 11:47 a.m. Inappropriate

The U.S. constitution prohibits states from obstructing interstate commerce. WA State can't legally stop the coal exports.

NotFan

Posted Wed, May 9, 2:42 p.m. Inappropriate

A carbon tax would help, but it is unlikely to be adopted anytime soon with the political and regulatory morass now existing in Washington, DC. To really work, all nations would have to agree to a cap and trade policy, also not likely. None of this begins to pay for all the physical mitigations necessary, like the enormous infrastructure costs to provide grade separated crossings and the like to provide public safety to people and convenience to existing businesses. Then, there is the undeniable damage to aquatic bio-systems, noise and nuisance, degradation to property values, both private and public, and of course increased atmospheric pollution, continued outsourcing of US jobs and depletion of our natural resources to aid our biggest economic competitor, China.
On top of these concerns, our Whatcom County Council is being given legal advice that all discussion of concerns in its public meetings is to be avoided! Incredible? We have found the enemy and it is us.

jwatts

Posted Thu, May 10, 6:28 a.m. Inappropriate

Here's a good source for learning more about the Powder River Basin coal deposits, providing 40% of the nations coal.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Powder_River_Basin
Reading under 'Coal' describes how it becomes increasingly less viable to strip away the overburden rock as mining continues.
Some estimates only give the basin 20 years of reserves that can be economically extracted. Let's keep our eye on the big picture here, and not submit to the 'Quick China Buck' syndrome.

007

Posted Thu, May 10, 7:32 p.m. Inappropriate

So perhaps Cherry Point isn't the best export spot, if the rail can't handle it. Several other ports would just love to have the business.

Posted Sat, May 12, 10:31 a.m. Inappropriate

Assuming that this climate-screwing-big-bucks-for-them-that-already-has-big-bucks scheme gets that far, there is an existing legal mechanism to make the coal profiteers pay for the infrastructure upgrades without shifting this burden onto the rest of us. SEPA provides for requiring full mitigation and requiring that it be paid for by those creating the impacts. This is almost never done because of gutless agency bureaucrats doing what the politically appointed bosses of these captured agencies. However, it doesn't have to be that way. If the various regional rail plans identify passenger rail as the desired public goal, the coal profiteers should not only have to pay for the freight upgrades but to also replace the lost passenger capacity. If they cannot - or will not - do this, or if it can't be done, than there is justification for denying the entire proposal. In other words, if the impacts can't or won't be fully mitigated then the proposal can be rejected. That is a policy decision that will ultimately be made by the politicians.

Steve E.

Posted Tue, May 15, 5:09 p.m. Inappropriate

Leaving aside for a moment the viability of increased rail passenger service; AMTRAK service already exists along the Northwest coast, all the way to Vancouver, BC. Then, there is bus service, which no one seems to feel is subsidized, and, then the Alaska State Ferry from its southern terminus at Bellingham to several destinations in SE Alaska -a very popular service that is critical to business and public purposes.
There is one notable place that all three of these modes of transportation come together at one place; Bellingham. All three are actually adjacent, which creates the ideal conditions for -wait for it- TRIMODAL transportation!
The proposed GPT project requires a greatly increased number of Coal Trains to pass right through this single Trimodal center, thereby cutting off access at ground level. There is no grade separation, either existing or anticipated; the costs being likely too high to even consider. What to do about that? At who's cost? Think that might get included in a SEPA exercise?
And that's just of many problematic examples! Hello, any bureaucrats care to comment?

jwatts

Posted Mon, May 14, 9:19 p.m. Inappropriate

No one cares about passenger rail except for the rail buffs.

NotFan

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