(Page 2 of 4)
Much the same may be said about rail improvements in other Washington communities from Seattle to Vancouver, and along the Columbia Gorge and into Spokane; that’s the route of coal trains from Wyoming. In addition to Cherry Point, coal-export terminals are under consideration at Longview and Grays Harbor and at two Oregon ports.
Studies declare that the BNSF mainline is the only practical way to ship the coal, and it is clearly BNSF’s preference. The railroad has a little-used inland line running from Burlington parallel with Highway 9 to Sumas; conceivable it could be upgraded and expanded, but it could not qualify for high-speed transit taxpayer dollars so it would need to be financed by the railroad itself.
The pattern of rail capital investments has been to depend on public funding when an opportunity is presented. For decades, federal investment in freight-rail infrastructure has been minimal; funds have been directed to passenger rail. On smaller branch lines or in rural areas without mass transit the railroads are generally on their own.
In its 2006 Amtrak report, the Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT) listed $607.7 million spent to that time on upgrading the rail system, with BNSF contributing $9.4 million, or 2 percent. Many of the improvements, such as stations, would not benefit BNSF, but others dealing with tracks and safety clearly would. The pattern is similar to that in other areas. As TSM commented in its report, “BNSF can be expected to support any new business, including the proposed coal trains, with the minimum amount of effective investment.”
Washington rail planners did not design this system for coal trains; the plans originated well before coal exporting from Puget Sound or Columbia River ports was envisioned. WSDOT assumed for two decades that freight-rail traffic would be intermodal stack cargo along with grain and other products of the region. Coal caught them by surprise as it did others; fortunately for BNSF, it has a railroad that connects to deep-water ports. And fortunately for SSA Marine, it owns a thousand acres at Cherry Point with an 80-foot deep channel from which it once planned to ship grain and potash.
During the past two decades, since the Legislature approved the high-speed rail plan in 1993, the state has plugged away, using federal and state grants to expand service, particularly between Seattle and Portland, where trackage is more developed and there is greater demand. Seattle to Vancouver limped along, finally getting two round trips a day, but is still far from its goal of four trains. Serious rail bottlenecks, particularly between Burlington and Blaine, and between the U.S. border and Vancouver, require huge investments and still wind up with the trains sharing tracks with freight.
State plans to overcome the bottlenecks were not secret — they are outlined in 2006 and 2009 state reports — but the details have not been widely discussed, in part because the likelihood of their ever being funded is not high. Local planners worked on the basis of future freight traffic growing but not exploding with coal exports.
Railroad officials have said 15 trains a day now use its tracks between Everett and Bellingham; that’s practical capacity for the present system, according to state reports and TSM. If Cherry Point is built to capacity it adds another 18 trains to the line — more than double present capacity. Without dramatic improvement, the coal can’t be shipped.
Thus the sudden pressure on those old plans to add capacity for Amtrak, because they would also add capacity for the coal trains.
Building a second track through Bellingham’s waterfront and also expanding the Samish siding south of Chuckanut Drive would boost daily train capacity to 24 trains, TSM believes. But that is still far short of the 33 per day that would be needed when the Cherry Point terminal is built to capacity.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!