Our Sponsors:

Read more »

Our Members

Many thanks to Bill Schrier and Maggie Nowakowska some of our many supporters.

ALL MEMBERS »

How coal trains could choke NW's economic engines

A new study sees possible trouble for ports, manufacturers, and communities along rail lines.
Two locomotives push a 129-car coal train along the waterfront in British Columbia.

Two locomotives push a 129-car coal train along the waterfront in British Columbia. Michael Chu/Flickr

Runs of trains loaded with coal could increase under proposals new shipping facilities in Washington and Oregon.

Runs of trains loaded with coal could increase under proposals new shipping facilities in Washington and Oregon. Paul K. Anderson/Chuckanut Conservancy

A new study of rail transportation problems associated with the transport of millions of tons of coal from the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana to proposed export terminals in the Pacific Northwest was released today in Montana, citing "a huge, huge increase in volume that we've never seen in this part of the world."

That assessment came from Terry C. Whiteside, a Billings-based transportation consultant who co-authored the regional study. In a telephone news conference he cited potential impacts on time-sensitive shipments of other commodities, including grain and Northwest manufactured goods headed for markets in the Midwest. Whiteside and Gerald W. Fauth III, a transit consultant based in Alexandria, Va., said Northwest communities need to unite to assure a full review of the impact on local communities.

Numerous Northwest governments and organizations have called for a broad environmental impact review of the six U.S. export terminals that are proposed; most have directed their concerns to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is the lead federal agency on the  applications for terminals where permits have already been filed.

The Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC), sponsor of the new study, supports that idea, but also suggests an appeal to the Surface Transportation Board, the federal agency that regulates railroads. "The STB has often been involved incases which involved mitigation resulting from increased railroad traffic levels," the consultants said, including cases related to Powder River Basin coal.

Export terminals now under consideration in Washington and Oregon would attract an estimated 63 million tons of coal in 2017 if all are opened, expanding to as much as 145 million tons in 2022. By comparison, just over 5 million tons were burned in 2011 by the Northwest's two coal plants, both of which will close by 2025.

Most observers do not expect that all proposals will be approved, and the timetable could be delayed. Most of the coal will be moved on Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) rails; a small amount to Oregon ports would be on Union Pacific lines.

The WORC report focuses on heavy-impact areas or "choke points" on the thousand-mile route from the mines to West Coast ports. Among those spots are Billings, Mont., and a segment known as "The Funnel" between Sandpoint, Idaho, and Spokane. Coal traffic at Spokane could be up to 63 trains a day in addition to the heavy traffic the city already bears; in Billings it would be 58 trains per day. City governments in both cities and in Cheney, which is bisected by rail lines, are among those calling for broad reviews of the export terminals.

The report assumes that BNSF will carry all of the coal coming into Washington ports and some of the Oregon-bound coal. In Washington, the line from Spokane through Tri-Cities, the Columbia Gorge, and north toward Bellingham is expected to carry most or all of the loaded coal trains and most of the empty returns. Some of the latter could be routed through Stampede Pass, which cannot handle loaded cars. The report sees some loaded cars using Stevens Pass.

WORC believes the most serious choke points are near Spokane and Billings. In the case of Spokane, four major rail lines converge between Spokane and Sandpoint and average 46 freight trains a day, in addition to Amtrak. A major upgrade was designed to handle 70 trains a day; WORC notes that the coal traffic at buildout would far exceed that capacity if all terminals are approved.

Spokane is already heavily impacted by rail traffic, and the city has asked for a study of the coal terminals that includes its rail impacts. Even more impacted is the nearby small city of Cheney, where the same trains bisect the city. Cheney officials are also demanding that their impacts be studied. "What's happening to us is we are bearing unacceptable external costs," Cheney Mayor Tom Trulove told reporters in a May telephone conference; he said the city hoped to pursue a "quiet zone" by enhancing crossings but BNSF plans for a double track will make that impossible.


Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!

Comments:

Posted Thu, Jul 12, 4:01 a.m. Inappropriate

This was a very good article. SSA is largely owned by Goldman-Sachs. I believe the red light camera corporation in Bellingham is owned by Goldman-Sachs as well.

jhande

Posted Thu, Jul 12, 5:33 a.m. Inappropriate

Mr. McKay,
I understand you do not like coal, most people do not. However, please when you are making comments about transportation systems get you facts correct.
• Westbound freight moves over Stampede Pass daily. I live next door to the tracks in E. King County and I watch them everyday. As part of the land swap for the Bellevue-Woodinville-Snohomish land swap, WSDOT is a participant in the raising of the tunnel at Stampede and several other improvements to allow for double stacks.
• If the coal were to be exported via an Oregon port, the UP would be a player since they also have rail access to Powder River coal and their mainline runs into Portland and south up the Willamette River Valley.
• As I have pointed out before, if no coal terminal gets built in Washington or Oregon, shipping terminals will be expanded or built in B.C. coal will still be shipped through Washington only it will not stop here but continue on north to B.C.
• In Cheney, the trains do not bisect the city; they run on the eastern edge of the downtown area.
• Expansion of capacity is not the burden of the local municipalities; it is the burden of the railroad. The only major costs that municipalities would bear are litigation, which in final outcome they bear since they lose the case in most instances.
• Improving crossing safety is a split cost between municipalities and the railroad. Municipalities bear their share because estates of stupid or distracted drivers who like to drive in front of or into trains, sue both parties. This becomes a cost avoidance device, not a requirement.

There are numerous errors in your article, regarding rail traffic. These are just a few. Environmentally, I agree that coal should not be shipped overseas. Instead of attacking the transportation system, let us instead attack the coal mines and stop them from producing coal. That is the real basis for your concern. Let us get to the heart of the matter.

Posted Thu, Jul 12, 1:09 p.m. Inappropriate

Seattlelifer, I think you missed Mr. McKay's point about the concerns of local governments. In Snohomish County, for example, the BNSF line bisects the City of Marysville severing its downtown from I-5 when trains roll through. This is a town of approximately 60,000 making this a significant problem.

Another example is the City of Edmonds where the BNSF line cuts through the ferry dock - note this is one of WSDOT's most productive ferry routes. Careful orchestration is already required to allow both trains to pass and passengers to load. This situation will become unmanageable with significant rail traffic increases.

The cost of over and undercrossings to mitigate the effects of increased train traffic and length would NOT be born by BNSF. These are not safety projects and would not obligate BNSF to split the cost of making the improvements.

Instead, the city, county and state must reallocate already insufficient transportation dollars, probably in the way of $10-25 million per project, away from projects which would benefit local communities and economic development in the region to these projects which provide no other economic value to the communities except mitigating the effects of the coal train traffic.

I'm not necessarily arguing against the coal trains because, as you correctly pointed out, if the market for the coal is sufficient they will build the terminals in B.C. and we as a state will still bear the impacts of the trains with zero benefit.

Posted Thu, Jul 12, 6:07 p.m. Inappropriate

Perhaps I should respond to concerns raised by seattlelifer.

“Westbound freight moves over Stampede Pass daily.”
My reference was clearly to loaded coal cars, not general freight; loaded coal cars don’t use that route.


 “If the coal were to be exported via an Oregon port, the UP would be a player since they also have rail access to Powder River coal and their mainline runs into Portland and south up the Willamette River Valley.”

I stated that in my story. Union Pacific would carry coal south to Eugene, where it transfer to a short-line railroad to Coos Bay. Either UP or BNSF could bring coal to Portland, where it would transfer to a short-line to St. Helens under Kinder-Morgan’s plan.

“As I have pointed out before, if no coal terminal gets built in Washington or Oregon, shipping terminals will be expanded or built in B.C. coal will still be shipped through Washington only it will not stop here but continue on north to B.C.”

My story does not reference this issue but it is a point in sharp dispute. At least two credible studies reject this thesis, which is pushed by SSA Marine, and point out that limited expansion in B.C. will almost certainly be used by Canadian mines. See in particular http://www.communitywisebellingham.org/cwb-studies-gpt-train-impacts-on-the-waterfront/.

“In Cheney, the trains do not bisect the city; they run on the eastern edge of the downtown area.”

I don’t know Cheney; I’m relying on the mayor of Cheney who is concerned about rail tracks traffic cutting off residential areas from emergency services. (Bisect: split into two parts).

“Expansion of capacity is not the burden of the local municipalities; it is the burden of the railroad. The only major costs that municipalities would bear are litigation, which in final outcome they bear since they lose the case in most instances.”

Railroads regularly benefit from public money spent to add capacity, in the guise of high-speed rail and local transit. Railroads will bear the cost of upgrading railbeds and (perhaps) adding sidings or double tracks—in the latter case, they will hope that (federal or state) public transit funds will build added tracks or sidings, as has already done throughout Western Washington. Municipalities are stuck with the costs of improving crossings and changing traffic patterns to deal with the rail traffic.

“Improving crossing safety is a split cost between municipalities and the railroad. Municipalities bear their share because estates of stupid or distracted drivers who like to drive in front of or into trains, sue both parties. This becomes a cost avoidance device, not a requirement.”
The split between railroads and local government is very one-sided. Federal regulations limit the railroad contribution to 5 percent of the cost of building a grade separation to replace an at-grade signalized crossing that was ordered by the state. That is a fairly narrow requirement and a rather small contribution for the railroad. Grade separations can run into tens of millions of dollars.

Posted Sat, Jul 14, 1:38 p.m. Inappropriate

"In a telephone news conference he cited potential impacts on time-sensitive shipments of other commodities, including grain and Northwest manufactured goods headed for markets in the Midwest"

We too export stuff. And, except for our carbon dioxide spewing aircraft, our exports go on trains and trucks across other states. I wonder if Montana and Wyoming have any qualms about being a party to the transportation of lumber harvested from National Forests or fruit picked by illegal immigrants. Probably not. We're lucky that way.

kieth

Posted Tue, Jul 17, 7:39 a.m. Inappropriate

Ironically, Powder River Basin coal became popular because users saw it as a cheaper way to comply with the Clean Air Act. Seems burning lower sulfur coal with a 30% lower heating value was seen as less costly than retrofitting power plants with emissions equipment in the US!
Now, with overall coal use declining in the US, coal companies are scrambling to sell as much coal as possible without regard to location.
But is stripping our natural resource to sell -without substantial value-adding - to foreign countries smart?
Is it a wise energy policy? Why should communities along the logistics routes be saddled with the prospect of nearly unlimited, costly train and ship traffic? Why shouldn't the proponents be required to pay adequate mitigation costs?
If there was ever a time for reasonable restraint in commerce, this is it! The 'Commerce Clause' needs to be revised to reflect the many changes that have occurred over the past 150 years. How long will we allow the 'Robber Barons' of old to continue enjoying their unlimited appetites and privileges?

jwatts

Login or register to add your voice to the conversation.

Join Crosscut now!
Subscribe to our Newsletter

Follow Us »