Does Washington State's rail system have the capacity to transport the projected 142 million plus tons of coal annually to proposed coal export terminals? How might this impact other users of the rail system and the rest of the transportation infrastructure in the state?
The "Washington State 2010-2030 Freight Rail Plan," by the Washington State Department of Transportation State Rail and Marine Office, analyzes the state's freight rail capacity, http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/Freight/Rail/Plan.htm. This comprehensive state rail plan is a federal requirement in order to receive federal rail funds. It provides guidance for rail initiatives and investments in the state.
In 2007 the state's total rail freight system carried 116 million tons of freight. It projects carrying 145.7 million tons in 2020 and 183 million tons in 2030. Adding new coal terminals to the equation would mean doubling the carrying capacity of the rail freight system by 2020.
These coal terminals are not in the state rail plan and do not figure into planned improvements for the system. The plan states 10.6 million tons of coal were transported in 2007, projects 14.8 million tons in 2020, and 19.9 million tons in 2030.
If the state's rail system were underutilized and the infrastructure in good shape, then adding a huge amount of freight might not be a problem. But the system is not in good shape and there is already a scramble for funds to improve it. The plan compared the 2008 mainline practical capacities with the estimated average trains per day (ATPD) in the major rail corridors. In the I-5 rail corridor and the Columbia Gorge corridor, rail operations were running at 70 to over 100 percent capacity. In 2028 these corridors are projected to be at 100 percent or over capacity. The Vancouver to Tacoma I-5 corridor has a practical capacity of 70 trains, without passenger rail improvements. In 2008 ATPD was 55 and projected to be 92 in 2028. Major yard bottlenecks and choke points are identified at Vancouver and along the I-5 corridor.
Addressing the I-5 capacity issues the plan states,
"The on-time performance of the Amtrak Cascades service has dropped, and delays for both BNSF and UP freight trains have increased, although recent changes in freight operating practices have improved performance somewhat. The problem is particularly acute in the Portland/Vancouver, Wash., area, where the railroads north-south and east-west routes intersect. Rail simulation studies (i.e., grain trains bound for the ports, inter modal trains running through, industrial carload trains serving local industries, and intercity passenger trains shuttling up and down the I-5 corridor) show that the delay hours per train moving through the Portland/Vancouver area are greater than the delay hours for trains in the Chicago area, one of the nation's most congested rail hubs."
Increasing congestion is anticipated, even without the additional 16 trains per day to supply the planned coal terminal in Longview.
Sufficient funding does not appear to exist to upgrade and improve the rail system to meet the needs of one coal terminal, let alone multiple terminals. The current rail plan, without the coal terminals, identified $2 billion in rail needs of which 90 percent were unfunded. The I-5 corridor main line is privately owned by BNSF. Stated in the rail plan, "BNSF has no public plans, other than those announced to support intercity passenger train volumes, to increase capacity over the route. From a freight perspective, BNSF believes sufficient capacity exists for the foreseeable future. Indeed, BNSF's planning staff sees nothing in this corridor as 'freight driven' with the current volumes at this time. Increased volumes may require capacity improvements."
Without capacity improvements, adding the burden of coal shipments to an already stressed system will have multiple, far-reaching effects which deserve critical analysis. Besides affecting the passenger rail system, the I-5 rail corridor also serves the freight needs of our expanding military bases in the Puget Sound area. Requiring the capacity of the freight system to double will affect other shippers, of which the top users in 2007 were producers of farm products, lumber and wood products, and miscellaneous mixed shipments. Presumably, some goods would have to move to long haul trucks, impacting our highways and also our air quality, because trucks produce more pollution per weight per mile shipped than trains. One can only speculate how shipping prices and ultimately the cost of shipped goods would be affected.
Coal trains would affect transportation in some of our communities directly. The secondary effects on our transportation, environmental, and social systems could be statewide. There is ample and urgent justification for the State Director of Ecology Ted Sturdevant's appeal in his letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for "federal review of rail and vessel congestion," generated by proposed coal terminals.
Diane L. Dick lives in Longview.