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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Spokane rail traffic, already some of the region's heaviest, could face new challenges from more coal and oil trains. lndhslf72/Flickr.


There appears to be a culture of denial in Spokane and Montana — at least among traditional political and business powers. Coverage in the Spokesman-Review, the area’s major news source, has been perfunctory, and only 500 people showed up at a September hearing in Spokane on the Millennium coalport at Longview. Smaller cities turned out larger audiences across the state.

Among major political figures only Ben Stuckart, Spokane City Council president, and Cheney Mayor Tom Trulove have been outspoken. The advent of oil trains, with their explosive potential, did raise the stakes recently and the Spokane City Council voted unanimously to ask state and federal officials to scrutinize oil shipments via rail.

Montana leaders are pushing both oil and coal, major employers and taxgenerators in the region. Rail traffic in Billings, Montana’s largest city, could triple in the next decade, a perfect storm of Powder River Basin (PRB) coal and Bakken crude oil; but in Bellingham Monday, a group from the Billings area — including the Montana Chamber of Commerce president — told reporters that BNSF would solve rail congestion issues, and Washington state agencies should not try to regulate rail traffic. Montana farmers want additional export terminals, in part hoping competition will drive down export costs for grain, Yellowstone County commissioner and farmer John Ostlund told reporters Monday.

Whiteside and Fauth disagree: “In addition to the large volumes of grain moving to the PNW, the grain traffic fluctuates seasonally with increased volumes taking place after the fall harvests. As a result, traffic congestion would likely be greater during these post-harvest periods,” they state. Whiteside is associated with wheat and barley associations of Western states.

The authors speculate on BNSF’s routing plans to avoid congestion — the railway has already begun routing some empty coal cars through Stampede Pass, which is too steep for loaded cars — and more use of Stampede and Stevens passes, particularly for empty cars, is expected. This would lessen the pressure on the Columbia Gorge, but increase it on Wenatchee and Yakima. BNSF does not publicly commit to future routing plans, which are subject to a host of variables.

The Western Organization of Research Councils study closely reflects and expands upon reports of Sightline Institute, which has tracked coal and oil trains for the past three years. Whiteside and Fauth discount the recent Washington State Rail Plan, which is based on data collected before the Big Energy rush began in 2011.

“Certainly, the (WSDOT) statement that the proposed export coal projects could ‘increase the demands placed on the state’s rail system’ is an understatement,” they state.

WSDOT projected future rail traffic to 2030 without consideration of coal or oil trains beyond what had been on the tracks in 2010. Even that limited study predicted The Funnel would be at 150 percent of capacity in 2030, without coal or oil trains. Transportation officials say they could only deal with permitted projects in their report, which is critical to keep federal dollars flowing into rail projects in the state.


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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.