Coal, oil shipping could benefit from passenger rail improvements in Washington

A coal train waits south of Blaine, Friday morning, Oct. 11, 2013, to cross the border and unload in Canada. The engine is at the end of the mile long train.
A coal train waits south of Blaine, Friday morning, Oct. 11, 2013, to cross the border and unload in Canada. The engine is at the end of the mile long train. THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

President Barack Obama's high-speed rail program was supposed to deliver faster and more frequent passenger trains to communities across the country. But some of the $10.1 billion in funding for that program also could benefit one of the nation's largest freight railroads.

Washington state received $781 million from the Obama administration's 2009 economic stimulus to improve passenger rail service in the 300-mile corridor that stretches from Portland, Ore., north to Vancouver, British Columbia.

The effort will result in two additional roundtrips on the popular Amtrak Cascade route between Portland and Seattle by 2017, bringing the total to six daily. It will add new locomotives, overhaul passenger cars and renovate stations.

Amtrak may not be the only winner, however. BNSF Railway, the owner of the tracks over which Amtrak operates, is a leading hauler of coal from Wyoming's Powder River Basin and crude oil from North Dakota's Bakken region, and it seeks to increase its shipments of both commodities in the Pacific Northwest.

The federal funds are paying for extended sidings to allow passenger and freight trains to pass each other, and other tracks to park slower freight trains so they don't interfere with Amtrak.

"Yes, I would call it a passenger project," said DJ Mitchell, assistant vice president of passenger operations for BNSF. "When you begin to add additional train service and you have places that are constrained, you're going to have to add some track capacity."

BNSF, based in Fort Worth, Texas, and owned by billionaire investor Warren Buffett, has partnered with Western coal producers and waterborne shipping interests to develop two coal export facilities in Washington state — one of those at Cherry Point in Whatcom County — that could ship as much as 100 million tons of coal a year to overseas markets, including China. It also plans to ramp up deliveries of crude oil to the region's refineries.

The plans have generated enormous controversy in the Northwest. Many of the same community and environmental groups that support the passenger rail investment in the region oppose the increased fossil fuel shipments by rail.

"The Sierra Club wholeheartedly supports publicly funded rail infrastructure investments," said Krista Collard, a spokeswoman for the environmental group, "so long as they are not shipping fossil fuels that will ultimately worsen the climate crisis."

Coal and oil trains would share the same upgraded tracks as the passenger trains. And while Obama may be out of office by the time the new Amtrak trains start moving, a few coal trains are rolling daily over those rails to an export terminal in British Columbia, as are oil trains to a refinery in Anacortes.

All the improvements on the Cascade route still won't deliver the 110 mph minimum that Congress defines as "high-speed rail." Passenger trains will have a top speed of 79 mph.

"It's conventional passenger service," Mitchell said.

In a 2011 news release, the Washington State Department of Transportation hailed an agreement with BNSF to begin work on passenger rail projects funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. It noted that the investments would boost the on-time performance of Amtrak's trains "while also allowing BNSF the ability to provide world-class freight rail service."

In the same release, BNSF Chairman and CEO Matt Rose made clear that the funds would benefit his company's operations as well as Amtrak's.

"This is an important step towards improving the trackage infrastructure to help meet current and future demands for both passenger and freight rail service," he said.

The nation's largest freight railroads have mounted an aggressive marketing campaign to tell the public about the billions of dollars they've spent on their own infrastructure. They've also received state and federal dollars in recent years, but they haven't promoted it. McClatchy reported this week that the Obama administration has invested more than $600 million in freight rail since 2009.

Kevin Thompson, a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration, which oversaw the stimulus funding that went toward rail projects, said that "passenger and freight rail are perpetually linked."

"We are constantly striving to improve passenger and freight service in response to community demands and will continue to work with the railroad industry and local communities to address their concerns," he said.

Courtney Wallace, BNSF spokeswoman, said the railroad planned to spend $125 million to improve its rail infrastructure in Washington state this year, part of a $4.3 billion overall capital spending plan. The Washington state funds would build new capacity, upgrade signal systems and enable a "significant" maintenance program on 2,800 miles of track.

But federal funds are paying for several projects on the line BNSF shares with Amtrak's Cascade trains.

They include:

— $146 million to replace rail, ties and roadbed to allow for faster passenger train speeds on track shared by freight trains.

— $123 million for a third main track to enable passenger trains to move around freight trains entering and exiting the Port of Longview, which is one of the sites under review for a coal export terminal.

— $70 million for an upgraded and extended passing siding to allow passenger trains to move around freight trains at the Port of Kalama.

— $16 million to reduce passenger and freight train delays caused by frequent landslides between Everett and Seattle.

"BNSF does not pay for the rail improvements," said Gayla Walsh, a spokeswoman for the state transportation department.