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.

(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.


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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

Posted Tue, May 6, 1:35 p.m. Inappropriate

We who are concerned about the next seven generations should be negotiating with the RR workers' unions to determine how we can safely stop coal and oil trains while promoting sensible use of rail to move people and essential cargo. Protests blocking the rails could shape the future.

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