Passenger Trains Putting a Squeeze on Freight Through the Tideflats

By John Gillie, June 30, 2013, The News Tribune

Before dawn each day, rush hour begins on the rail equivalent of Interstate 5 in Western Washington. During that roughly four-hour period and a similar period in the afternoon, freight train traffic from the Port of Tacoma and the Tacoma Tideflats is prohibited from entering BNSF’s mainline track headed northward toward Seattle.

 

That’s because the BNSF track is occupied with Sounder commuter trains and Amtrak Cascades regional trains carrying passengers to destinations between Tacoma and Everett, and between Portland and Seattle. Those 10 rush-hour passenger trains would have difficulty meeting their schedules if they were forced to mesh their high-speed operations with mile-long freight trains moving at half their 79 mph maximum speeds.

 

Getting commuters and travelers to work and home on time is a trade-off that the railroad and rail freight users have accepted, but as the demand on rail capacity in Western Washington booms as railroads find big new customers, rail users are taking steps to ensure that the state’s rail infrastructure doesn’t become gridlocked because of competing demands for capacity.

 

Central to solving the potential issues of increasing traffic is the BNSF’s north-south mainline track.

 

RAIL SUPERHIGHWAY

 

That BNSF track, which extends from Vancouver, Wash., to the Canadian border just south of Vancouver, B.C., is the rail superhighway of Western Washington. That route, on which the Union Pacific Railroad has running rights between the Columbia River and Tacoma, is the rail transportation spine of Washington industries and ports.

 

But like I-5, which the line parallels for much of its north-south route, this vital rail artery is subject to traffic jams and restrictions that govern just how much and when freight can be delivered to and from the ports and industries of Western Washington.

 

Two new kinds of big rail users and the planned expansion of rail passenger service has the potential to put new pressure on the state’s rail infrastructure.

 

Those two new users are massive unit trains carrying coal from Wyoming and Montana for export at Columbia River, Puget Sound and Canadian ports and mile-long trains of black tank cars moving crude oil and Canadian tar sands petroleum products to Puget Sound refineries and terminals.

 

DEMAND FOR RAIL CAPACITY INTENSIFIES

 

In the last two years, cheap natural gas has displaced coal at many of the nation’s power plants. That has left both coal mining companies and the railroads, to whom coal-hauling was a big revenue producer, looking for new customers.

 

They found those new customers in Asia, particularly China, where the thirst for electric power has that country building new coal-fired power plants at an accelerated pace.

 

The shift in where coal is in demand has rerouted coal trains from carrying coal to Midwest and Eastern power plants toward the West Coast, where a handful of new coal export terminals are planned for the American and Canadian west coasts.

 

A coal terminal proposed for Cherry Point near Anacortes by Seattle’s SSA Marine could require as many as nine 7,000-foot-long coal trains daily to fill the bulk carrier ships headed for Asia.

 

A new coal terminal in Longview and a smaller terminal in Boardman, Ore., will generate further coal traffic.

 

If the coal terminal isn’t built at Cherry Point, export activities could shift farther north to Canada, and coal trains would continue to roll through the Puget Sound area to serve those terminals.

 

The other part of the emerging fossil fuel rail pipeline concept is the emergence of rail transport of crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken formation to refineries and terminals in Washington and Oregon.

 

The lack of pipelines to carry that crude production to West Coast refineries and terminals has given railroads, principally BNSF, which serves North Dakota, an opportunity to enter the oil transport business in a big way.

 

A new report by the pro-environment Sightline Institute estimates that as many as 20 crude oil trains daily will move through the Puget Sound rail corridor.

 

LOCAL EFFECT

 

In Tacoma, two businesses, U.S. Oil and Refining, and Targa Sound terminals, are expanding their rail yards and storage farms to handle more North Dakota crude oil. Targa itself could handle two 100-car crude oil trains daily. U.S. Oil could handle several weekly.

 

Beyond the environmental arguments surrounding the coal and oil trains, could those trains adversely affect the region’s capacity to handle its traditional rail commodities such as lumber, grain and containerized imports?

 

BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas says the railroad has sufficient capacity to handle the projected traffic. The railroad, he said, has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in improving its rail infrastructure in Washington, adding sidings, replacing and resurfacing tracks, and constructing bypass tracks so that faster passenger and container trains don’t get delayed by slower commodity trains.

 

The railroad has added some 350 new employees to its payroll in Washington, he said, to handle new business.

 

Other railroad and port industry professionals say they think BNSF has sufficient ability for now to cope with new traffic, but they’re planning measures to ensure that their own Tacoma traffic doesn’t get bottlenecked.

 

PORT’S ROLE IN IMPROVEMENTS AND RECESSION’S LINGERING EFFECT

 

The Port of Tacoma has made enhancing its rail connections and productivity a priority in its year-old strategic plan. With a majority of the port’s containerized imports headed for mid-continent destinations, on-time rail deliveries are important to customers, said Mike Reilly, director of intermodal business for the port.

 

The port, working with Tacoma Rail, which provides switching services on the Tideflats, is building two mile-long lead tracks to serve Targa’s new tank farm. Targa will construct new unloading tracks and a rail loop that will allow it to easily send its empty tank cars back to Tacoma Rail and the trunkline railroads.

 

BNSF’s Melonas said its mainline route through Tacoma now handles between 50 and 60 trains daily, a number, he said, well within the line’s capacity.

 

Part of the reason that capacity remains for more commodity trains is the lingering effect of the recession when port-related rail traffic plunged.

 

That traffic still remains below 2007 levels, said Melonas.

 

The state is working on several projects designed to enhance the capacity and timeliness of Amtrak trains passing through Tacoma while relieving some pressure on the existing mainline route along Ruston Way and through the one-track Nelson Bennett tunnel under Point Defiance. Ruston Way walkers often can see trains queued up to await their turn through the tunnel.

 

The state’s Point Defiance bypass route will send Amtrak trains through South Tacoma and Lakewood to connect with the BNSF mainline again at Nisqually.

 

All passenger trains will use that route.

 

That bypass is one of many projects the state is undertaking to improve the Portland-Vancouver, B.C, route. A new third track at Kelso will allow Amtrak trains to pass long commodity trains waiting to unload at Longview.

 

New tracks and grade separations at BNSF’s Vancouver, Wash., yard will speed passenger trains through that yard, rated by some as one of the most congested in the nation.

 

GOALS FOR IMPROVEMENTS

 

By spending some $800 million in federal funds on the Western Washington passenger route, the state Department of Transportation says it will be able to add two daily trains to the Seattle-Portland schedule and improve on-time performance to 88 percent.

 

The port’s Reilly said the port would like to see other improvements to the connections between the Tideflats and BNSF’s line.

 

The way that connection is configured, container trains leaving the port for the Midwest, pull across the Puyallup River near Puyallup Avenue, cross the mainline and pull through BNSF’s Tacoma yard.

 

When the container trains have cleared the mainline, the locomotives run around the train, attach themselves to the north end of the train and begin their journey northward through Seattle and Everett before turning east to cross the mountains through the Cascade tunnel at Stevens Pass.

 

“Every time we bring a train to or from the Tideflats from the BNSF, our front door gets blocked,” said Reilly.

 

The port has plans to build a second connection to the BNSF in the same vicinity that will allow trains to move directly to the north without the extensive maneuvering.

 

Also on Reilly’s wish list is an agreement between the BNSF and its rival, the Union Pacific, that would allow trains leaving Tacoma for Seattle to use UP’s underused former Milwaukee Road line on the north side of the Puyallup River to move trains toward Seattle. This would bypass BNSF’s busy line on the south side of the river. Commuter trains use that BNSF line.

 

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