Dozens Of Coal Trains Could Mean More Delays On Congested Northwest Rails And Roads

Apr 1, 2013

Five coal export terminals have been proposed for the Northwest. Trains would bring coal in from Wyoming and Montana. The route they would travel already is congested in many areas. Congestion means trains hit bottlenecks. Cars get stuck at railroad crossings.

  So what would dozens of coal trains mean for traffic on the rails and traffic on the roads? Bonnie Stewart from our EarthFix team has the story.

In the Northwest, one of the most congested places for trains straddles the border of Oregon and Washington. It’s a complicated network of railroads, bridges and ports.

Transportation planners call it the “Portland Triangle.” About one-hundred-and-forty trains move through the Triangle every day.

Some of them pass near Sean Cox’s house. When they do, crossing gates come down and cars and trucks grind to a stop. Or at least some of them do.

Cox can tell you what really happens there.

Cox: “Right now we’re standing at the middle of the three rail crossing and this is the spot where as trains do slow down and stop, people do start cutting through the neighborhood and trying to find a quicker way home which oftentimes drives the right by our house.”

Cox’s neighborhood is in North Portland. It was designed to be family-friendly. There’s a playground right across the street from his house. His 8-year-old son likes to play there.

But walking across the street gets dangerous when cars are dodging trains.

Cox: “They’ll come flying up the street with little regard for the kids and other people in the neighborhood, and I’m really concerned about what more trains will mean to traffic in this area.”

Five coal export terminals could bring as many as 47 more trains through the Northwest each day.

Seattle officials studied the impact coal trains could have on traffic. In some cases, they found people in cars could spend more than 10 minutes waiting for a coal train to go by.

The forty-seven coal trains could face their own set of obstacles.

They’ll hit a bottleneck in Sandpoint, Idaho that stretches all the way to Spokane. It’s called The Funnel.

Ryan Stewart can tell you why. He’s a planner with the Spokane Regional Transportation Council.

Stewart: “They call it The Funnel because it’s a constrained area in the Spokane Valley. Both of the main lines come together. It’s about a seventy-mile stretch.”

Stewart says The Funnel can handle about seventy-eight trains a day. That limit gets pushed during the harvest season. That’s when farmers need to move their grain to the ports. When The Funnel gets crowded, something has to give.

Stewart: “Every once in awhile there’s an issue in getting timber out of North Idaho or Eastern Washington and there’s isn’t capacity on the rail for it or there’s potentially too long of a delay, so it’s been transported by truck.”

A group of Northwest ports wanted to know how coal exports would impact rail traffic. So the ports commissioned a study to see what could happen over the next two decades.

The study says the railroads could meet all of the new demand if -- and this is a big if -- if someone makes dozens of improvements to the rail system. Those fixes will cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Coal trains will need more tracks between Sandpoint, Idaho and Spokane. As the trains move south, they’ll hit congestion in the Tri-cities and again when they swing west through the Columbia River Gorge. Both areas need more tracks.

From the Gorge, the trains enter The Portland Triangle. It needs more tracks. The two ports in the Triangle have been working on that.

The Port of Vancouver in Washington is adding a rail bypass. Workers have been driving piling in the ground to hold the new tracks. That will relieve some of the train congestion around the port.

The Port of Portland also has added tracks at its terminals. Still, trains get tied up in the heart of the Triangle. They stop cars near Sean Cox’s house. The trains stop other trains, too. Cox hears them idling off the mainline all the time.

Cox: “Everybody’s got to take their turn down there. I think the longest we’ve seen somebody down there has been for about an hour. It’s a hard sound to describe. You have a diesel engine at idle and then their brakes let off it’s like spew, spew, spew.”

Freight trains pull over a lot in The Triangle. Often they are letting passenger trains go by.

That's a passenger train. It's speeding past a freight train idling in the Portland Triangle. Federal law gives passenger trains priority over freight trains. But that doesn’t guarantee passenger trains will be on time. Amtrak trains moving south of Portland are on time about 90 percent of the time. Amtrak trains moving north of Portland don’t come close to that record. They stay on schedule only about 70 percent of the time.

One of the top reasons for delays? Freight train interference. Freight trains are long. Longer than a mile and a half in some cases. They can’t pull over for passenger trains when there aren’t enough tracks.

The BNSF Railway Company is responsible for keeping passenger trains on time north of Portland. BNSF officials declined to be interviewed about rail capacity issues. But they did respond to a Washington state official who was concerned about the coal trains. In a letter, BNSF officials said their tracks have enough capacity for all their customers, freight or passenger. They said they’ll have enough capacity in the future, too.

It’s hard to say when coal could reach export terminals in Oregon or Washington. Those projects still need permits. Some of them need more money. They’ll all need more railroad tracks.

Copyright 2013 Northwest Public Radio