Coal train complexities face Bellingham City Council

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMay 13, 2012 

BELLINGHAM - The City Council has scheduled a Monday, May 14, discussion of a new report that warns of likely waterfront disruptions if a massive new rail siding is constructed to accommodate coal trains headed for a proposed export pier at Cherry Point.

At 1:55 p.m. in council chambers at City Hall, the council's transportation committee expects to take a closer look at a recent consultant's report commissioned by Communitywise Bellingham. That report indicates that the single track on the BNSF Railway Co. mainline through the city is already close to its practical capacity.

SSA Marine, the Seattle-based shipping giant proposing the Gateway Pacific Terminal at a site south of the Cherry Point refinery, has estimated that the facility could draw as many as nine additional northbound trains per day, mostly loaded with coal. The nine empty trains also would have to pass through the city on the return trip to Rocky Mountain coal mines.

The report from Transit Safety Management noted that earlier state studies have identified a new Bellingham rail siding as the best way to enable more trains to pass through the local bottleneck. But the siding envisioned in those studies would stretch from the Amtrak station in Fairhaven almost to Central Avenue just south of Old Town, forcing closure of the rail crossings that provide car, bike and pedestrian access to Boulevard Park, as well as the Wharf Street crossing near the Port of Bellingham's shipping terminal.

BNSF spokeswoman Suann Lundsberg questioned the consultant's findings, saying she did not think anyone from Transit Safety Management consulted railroad officials before the report was issued. She also noted that the studies cited in the report were focused on increased Amtrak passenger service. Lundsberg contended that the findings in those reports did not necessarily apply to freight operations.

"These consultants do not have access to BNSF data and have no knowledge of what is needed for freight rail capacity in the region without talking to key freight rail providers, such as BNSF," Lundsberg said in an email.

In a later telephone interview, she noted that the Bellingham siding project had been on the drawing board even before SSA Marine came forward with its shipping terminal plan. But she said it would not necessarily be correct to conclude that Gateway Pacific could not operate without the siding through Bellingham.

BNSF plans to manage the increased freight traffic to and from Gateway Pacific by building a double track along the railroad spur that leads from Custer to the existing Cherry Point industries, Lundsberg said.

Another railroad official, corporate relations vice president John Ambler, explained that accommodating passenger trains requires more precise scheduling.

"Passenger trains get priority over freight trains and run on a much stricter schedule," Ambler said in an email. "Additional passenger train traffic would likely require a passing track (siding). And, additional passenger traffic is a distinct possibility on this line in future years. Consequently, we have been talking to the city about the possible need for a siding, because when they are planning overpasses (such as in the case of the waterfront development project), they need to leave room for the possibility of a siding."

But a siding is not needed for freight alone, Ambler said.

"Providing freight service to Gateway Pacific Terminal alone does not necessitate building a siding along the Bellingham waterfront," Ambler wrote. "However, BNSF does continually assess its capacity needs on the Bellingham Subdivision, to be prepared in advance of any future traffic growth."

Communitywise Bellingham members are not convinced. In a letter to the Whatcom County Planning Department, the group's executive director, Shannon Wright, argued that the impacts of the Bellingham siding should be lumped into the overall study of Gateway Pacific's impacts. Wright noted that the Custer rail improvements are already slated for scrutiny of that process. If the Bellingham siding also will be a necessary part of the coal terminal project, then that siding needs to get intense public scrutiny as well.

A December 2011 rail capacity study, prepared for a group of Northwest ports, appears to support the contention that added rail traffic through Whatcom County would require new sidings.

The study estimates the current capacity of the rail line through Bellingham and Whatcom County at about 24 trains per day, with a current average of about 17 trains using it today.

The first phase of Gateway Pacific, which SSA Marine has said it hopes to have up and running by 2016, would add 10 trains per day to the local rail line, including both incoming and outgoing. That would put the line over the capacity estimated in the port study even if no other rail cargoes or passenger trains are added in the meantime.

Under the consultants' high-growth scenario for maritime shipping and related rail shipment, the local rail line could get between 34 and 37 trains per day by 2020. Although the Gateway Pacific project is not mentioned in the study, that project's 18 trains at full capacity, added to the current traffic of 17 trains per day, would get local train traffic into the study's estimated range.

SSA has estimated it could achieve full capacity by 2026.

But the consultants also note that the local rail line can't handle all those additional trains without "addition of new sidings and the extension of existing sidings," although the location of those improvements is not spelled out.

Eric Johnson, executive director of the Washington Public Ports Association, said the added rail capacity would be good for the Northwest economy. While he and the ports association are not taking a position on the coal terminals, the development of those terminals could provide BNSF with the financial incentive to add the capacity required, Johnson said.

"That kind of capacity constraint is what causes the railroad to invest in projects that make the capacity go up," Johnson said.

Johnson recently sent a letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, asking the corps to be wary of imposing an overly broad environmental and economic study of coal terminal impacts. State agencies, Indian tribes and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have recently joined environmental groups in calling for just that kind of broad review of the impacts of coal terminals proposed around the region - impacts that could include everything from rail congestion and health problems to global pollution from coal burning in China.

"We're very nervous that the opponents of the coal terminals are going to wind up damaging freight rail interests generally," Johnson said, adding that added rail capacity will have many indirect benefits.

"The increased capacity also allows passenger trains to go faster," Johnson said. "It's always kind of a tradeoff."

Cheney Mayor Tom Trulove says he fears his city is on the short end of that tradeoff.

In a recent telephone press conference organized by coal terminal opponents, Mayor Trulove said 30 to 40 trains per day are already traveling through his city of about 11,000 people, passing over five at-grade street crossings.

"The tooting echoes through the community," Trulove said. "You probably don't want to open your windows at night or you won't be able to hear your TV."

If all the coal terminal projects now on the drawing board are built, another 60 trains per day could pass through Cheney, Trulove said.

The city had been working on a plan to install safety improvements along the BNSF line that would keep people and cars off the tracks and enable trains to do less tooting through town. But now BNSF wants to double up its rail line through Cheney, and that makes the plan obsolete, Trulove said.

"We'll never have enough money in a small town like this to build an overpass or an underpass," Trulove said.

Nor can it afford the cost of satellite fire stations to serve areas of town that will be isolated from emergency services if rail traffic gets much greater than it already is, Trulove added.

"We're bearing unacceptable external costs," Trulove said. "If this coal exporting is in the national interest, where's our compensation?"

Reach JOHN STARK atjohn.stark@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2274.

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