Coal trains for Cherry Point terminal would require more rails, limit access to Boulevard Park

A empty coal train heads south through Boulevard Park Wednesday morning, Aug. 24, 2011.  The engine pictured is on the end of the train.
A empty coal train heads south through Boulevard Park Wednesday morning, Aug. 24, 2011. The engine pictured is on the end of the train. THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

BELLINGHAM - Getting coal trains to and from a proposed Cherry Point export pier would require construction of a long rail siding that could eliminate Boulevard Park vehicle access and cause other waterfront disruptions in the city.

That was the key finding in a report prepared by Transit Safety Management, a large railroad consulting firm that has worked with the Washington State Department of Transportation and public agencies in a number of states and countries. Its work was commissioned by Communitywise Bellingham, a group formed to gather information on SSA Marine's proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal coal and bulk cargo project.

Communitywise Bellingham gave a preliminary report on the findings to City Council on Monday, May 7. Though the councilmembers didn't have too many questions about the report at the meeting, they said it's something they're going to study further.

Drawing on previous studies of the rail improvements that would be needed to increase Amtrak rail passenger service between Seattle and Vancouver, B.C., the consultants noted that Bellingham is in the middle of a significant rail bottleneck between BNSF Railway Co. sidings in Bow and Ferndale.

That bottleneck would have to be fixed to handle the trains that the coal terminal would draw. The existing practical capacity of the line through Bellingham is 15 trains, according to consultants, and regularly reached 12 trains per day before the recession, the consultant's report says.

At maximum capacity, Gateway Pacific Terminal could add 18 trains per day through the city: nine northbound trains full of Rocky Mountain coal and nine empty southbound trains returning to the mines.

The consultants pointed to a 2006 state study noting that an existing siding in the southern portion of Bellingham is not long enough to hold an entire freight train. That means that trains have to be held on sidings farther north or south to allow oncoming trains to pass on the single-track main line.

Extending the Bellingham siding to the north would eliminate that bottleneck and make it possible for more trains to use the line, but the siding would have to extend north through Boulevard Park, past the existing Wharf Street crossing and almost to Central Avenue. That siding - a parking place for a freight train - would likely mean the closure of the Wharf Street crossing, as well as the Bayview Drive access to Boulevard Park and the South Bay Trail bike and pedestrian crossing at the park's northern end.

Building the siding would be a financial bottleneck as well. The 2006 state study estimated its cost at more than $102 million. State and federal money regularly pay the cost of rail improvements, but public funding sources for a project of that magnitude are nonexistent at present.

The consultant's report observes that the railroad might pay some of it, but a Bellingham project would have to compete for company funds with other projects around BNSF's 32,000 miles of track in 27 states and British Columbia.

"Projects that do not generate a return of the capital investment in a relatively short time are generally not considered" for company funds, the consultant's report states.

The consultants also observe that the mammoth project would have to undergo its own extensive environmental review before it could get regulatory approval.

What about an alternate route along the lightly used South Fork Valley line? The consultants agree with earlier statements from BNSF officials that this route is impractical, requiring new track alignments and an entire new rail line from Lynden to Custer, with all the legal and financial hurdles that would entail.

Reach John Stark at 360-715-2274 or john.stark@bellinghamherald.com. Read his Politics blog at TheBellinghamHerald.com/blogs.