High demand creates challenges for rail service in Washington state

By Chris Spahr

Increased coal shipments to Washington State ports could significantly intensify congestion on both roads and rail lines. Two recent reports by Parametrix and the Sightline Institute discuss the impacts of increased shipments of fossil fuels (particularly coal) from Montana, Wyoming, and North Dakota to ports in the Pacific Northwest.  The Parametrix report, prepared at the request of Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn who opposes additional coal train movement in the region, finds that coal shipments could add up to 18 freight trains traveling through Seattle to the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point. These trains could take 4-6 minutes to traverse intersections in Seattle, causing an increase in roadway traffic delays. Another report by the Sightline Institute finds that the cumulative impact of planned oil refineries and port developments in Washington and Oregon could put an estimated 20 trains per day, each a mile long, on the Northwest’s railway system.

Amtrak Cascade Service

Amtrak Cascade Service

With the upsurge of demand for natural gas, which has displaced coal at many U.S. power plants, coal mining companies and coal hauling railroads are seeking out new customers. These customers can be found in Asia, and particularly China, where rapid development and the need for electric power has accelerated the rate of construction of coal-fired power plants. The overseas demand for coal has caused freight trains to re-route their traditional shipments of coal from power producers in the Midwest and the Northeast to coal exporting ports on the West Coast—specifically Washington and Oregon.

Further contributing to potential increased congestion caused by an upsurge in freight movement is the conflict with expanded passenger rail service. Already, freight trains are prohibited from operating on BNSF’s north-south corridor during peak commuter periods, when Sounder commuter trains and Amtrak’s Cascade Service are transporting passengers between Tacoma, Everett, Seattle, and Portland.

This comes at a time when the U.S. Court of Appeals threw out a law requiring freight trains to give priority to passenger trains on shared tracks. However, Alice Fiman, a Washington Department of Transportation communications representative, confirmed that WSDOT, which operates the Amtrak Cascade Service, has a separate agreement with BNSF requiring freight trains to meet the Amtrak service outcomes.

Both WSDOT and BNSF have made significant investments in the Western Washington rail corridor in an attempt to alleviate future congestion due to the heightened demands of both passenger and freight service.

Chris Spahr is a Graduate Assistant with SSTI.