Meet 'The Funnel': Will farmers, businesses suffer from more coal and oil trains?

A study for community organizations warns that more rail traffic could be bad for the economy.
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Loaded and empty coal trains meet near the Powder River Basin in Wyoming.

A study for community organizations warns that more rail traffic could be bad for the economy.

They call it “The Funnel,” a 70-mile confluence of BNSF rail tracks that feeds nearly 50 trains daily into Spokane and, according to an exhaustive research study, as many as 82 additional coal and oil trains could cascade into The Funnel in another decade.

The study warns that the “heavy traffic ahead” could damage both agriculture and intermodal shipping that must compete with coal and oil trains on a rail system that faces limits both around Spokane and across the state.

Big Energy’s race to the Pacific has already generated a lot of controversy west of the Cascades, but impacts on Eastern Washington, the Columbia Gorge and Montana are likely to be even more significant, according to the report for the Western Organization of Resource Councils, based in Billings. (The council describes itself as a regional network of grassroots groups dedicated to building "a democratic, sustainable and just society through community action.) The research was done by Terry Whiteside and Gerald Fauth, both with deep backgrounds in transportation.

The report finds there will be sharp growth in the volume of U.S. coal exports through the Pacific Northwest. By 2023, the Northwest could exports 170 million tons if all proposed or expanded ports go ahead; 2012 saw 11.8 million tons of U.S. coal exports, all via Canada. Coal trains (full and empty) would go from 7 a day currently to from 52 to 62 daily in 2023. Oil trains, still relatively few, are seen as quickly reaching 22 a day — nearly half would go to Vancouver, Wash., where a proposed Tesoro-Savage terminal is now being studied by the state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council.

The export of crude oil is barred by federal law; the Bakken crude would go from trains to West Coast refineries or terminals such as Vancouver, for barging to refineries. But efforts to lift the export ban have been discussed in Congress.

The potential of 85 daily energy trains would be added to a system already nearing capacity in several key sections. Not all proposed terminals will be approved, the authors note, but even if 75 percent are, the traffic would be very heavy. Their report is the first comprehensive study since Bakken oil entered the Big Energy mix.

The authors raise the potential impact on Northwest industries of coal and oil trains dominating the rail infrastructure and, in essence, bullying smaller industries off the routes that many have used for generations:

As a result of the high volume and profitable revenue, [Powder River Basin to Pacific Northwest] export coal movements and Bakken oil trains to the [Pacific Northwest] would likely be favored by the railroads over other types of existing railroad traffic. The remaining capacity available to other railroad shippers would be limited, constrained, and more expensive. ... Other freight shippers would likely see increased costs and higher railroad rates as a result of rail congestion and the limitations on available rail capacity. Railroad transit times would likely increase for other railroad traffic as a result of congestion.

BNSF has consistently maintained that it can handle additional traffic without shorting longtime customers. Then-CEO Matt Rose in November 2012 told Puget Sound Business Journal, “Why would we want to haul one type of freight at the expense of another? The answer would be, we’re going to handle all customers’ business — that’s in our own self-interest. We think with long-term planning, and working with WSDOT, and the other agencies we deal with, and providing proper capital, we can do that.”

Whiteside and Fauth say Rose understates the potential traffic.

The matter of effects on existing industries has not been widely discussed by regional business and industry leaders, who have either supported the export plans or, more frequently, kept out of the controversy. Chambers of Commerce, predictably, have led the drum rolls, in several instances in an alliance with construction and shipping unions.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Floyd McKay

Floyd McKay

Floyd J. McKay, professor of journalism emeritus at Western Washington University, was a print and broadcast journalist in Oregon for three decades.