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Northwest Coal Trains and Their Impact on Surface Traffic

On the first article I posted regarding the proposed coal trains through the Pacific Northwest, I received the following thoughtful comment that got me to thinking:

As a Whatcom County resident and having discussed this issue with many locals, we have a mixed opinion on whether the coal trains would be a benefit or a curse. But the reasons are far more diverse than this article explains. Yes, your points about the liberal/environmental agenda are well taken, but I don't believe the acceptance of the coal trains into our county in Upper NW Washington has a lot to do with it. Take a look at a map of the railway from Portland to Vancouver. Note where this railway passes through Whatcom County and you will get a better understanding of the reason many are opposed to a huge increase in traffic along this byway.

Railways were built to pass through towns, and most large towns and cities have moved their core away from the tracks often with that area becoming the warehousing and shipping area and the suburbs and city activities moving away with time. So the increased traffic the coal trains would create would have little threat to suburbia. Unfortunately, Bellingham and Fairhaven are lovely coastal towns whose downtowns have been revived with small businesses and tourist activity which support the area and would be strongly affected (or so citizens believe) by a train coming through the middle of these towns night and day. Also, since the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, the easiest passage for the train tracks when they were built was along the coastline. Very high end real estate, and parks that are frequented by the public, would be adversely affected by tremendous increase in traffic.

Maybe the people are misguided by the concern. But if you are going to convince Whatcom county residents (liberal or conservative) that this coal port and train activity is good for them. You will have to address the traffic concern. However, I have to agree with one friend who said, "Vancouver B.C. would love the business, if we don't take it, and the trains will pass by anyway." This could be a good talking point.

I began to wonder what the true impact of increased rail traffic might be, once these terminals are at peak operation. The first thing to note is that coal trains have been in operation in this area for decades already, as they ship to British Columbia terminals. Other freight trains also run frequently on this route, many of which exceed the overall length of most coal trains, as they deliver freight to terminals all over northern Washington State as well as into BC. The most likely routes for the new rail traffic would be through Spokane, across Washington either via a northerly route or along the Columbia River, and then north up the I-5 corridor. It is important to reiterate that current freight traffic already runs north along the I-5 corridor, all the way to Canada - and as the commenter states, if the coal ends up being shipped to Canada because Washington and Oregon refuse to allow the terminals to be built, Northwest Washington will still have the increased rail traffic with nothing to show for it.

But how much excess traffic will there actually be? That appears to have been answered to a certain extent in a report commissioned by the Mayor of Seattle in 2012. In the Coal Train Traffic Impact Study, the introduction states, in part:

Coal trains were assumed to be 7,000 feet long in 2015 and are expected to be up to 8,500 feet long in the future. In 2015, 10 total coal train trips (5 round trips) are expected each day, which is approximately one train approximately every 2.4 hours at crossings through Seattle. In 2026, the number of daily trains would increase to 18 total daily trips (9 round trips), which is approximately one train every 1.3 hours.  

Overall vehicle queue lengths at railroad crossings vary depending on when trains, including coal trains, arrive in relation to other trains. Freight trains longer than the coal trains already operate today. The maximum number of vehicles queuing from a single train would not increase provided coal trains are operating at 20 mph or greater. Coal trains added to the current demand would increase the number and frequency of vehicles waiting in a queue. Depending on the time between gate closures, vehicle queues may not fully dissipate before the next gate closing. This would result in longer vehicle queues for some of the coal train trips.

In the past 10 years, trains were directly involved in a total of four collisions at Broad Street, Wall Street, and Holgate Street. A total of 127 improper crossings were recorded within a 24-hour period at the Broad Street, South Holgate Street, and South Lander Street crossings involving vehicles, bicycles and/or pedestrians. Improper crossings are when vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians cross the tracks as the red lights start to flash or the railroad gates are down. This type of behavior could increase with more delays and could increase the potential for train collisions with vehicles, pedestrians, or bicyclists, and blocking incidents.

The report does raise the concern that emergency vehicle response time would be negatively affected, but it is quick to point out that the existing rail traffic through downtown Seattle already has significant impacts on both emergency vehicles and regular vehicle traffic. Further, it points out several rail crossing improvements that would dampen the effect of increased rail traffic.

As the study points out, the amount of time a gated rail crossing is impassable is dependent on how long the train is and how fast it's traveling. For the purposes of the study, the authors assumed that coal trains would be approximately 7,000 feet long and would travel at 20mph. But they also observe that current freight traffic through the city runs at 30mph on average, and the trains are 8,500 feet long. The charts they use on page 18 to show increased gate closure time are at best confusing, and at worst misleading. The charts show huge increases if the trains travel at 20mph, but much smaller increases at 30mph. If the figures would take into account the actual anticipated length and speed of the coal trains, the increase in gate downtime would be marginal.

Without subjecting the reader to excessive numbers and charts and graphs, the bottom line is that the report tends to overstate the amount of increased rail traffic through downtown Seattle.

Now, if the terminal ends up being sited at Cherry Point in Whatcom County, that is a different measurement because the trains will be slowing down and stopping in town to offload their freight. Of course, if the Morrow site is chosen upriver on the Columbia, this will be a moot point and nobody will be affected. But back to Cherry Point - BNSF has already included a new rail spur in their proposal for that terminal location, which would presumably alleviate some of the traffic concerns. Reasonable infrastructure investments in any municipality where the terminal is sited will go a long way towards alleviating many traffic concerns.