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More Coal, More Oil Means More Trains

EarthFix Photo/Katie Campbell
A coal train moves through Wyoming where the coal is mined from the Powder River Basin.

Train traffic will dramatically increase in the Pacific Northwest, if proposed coal export terminals and crude oil terminals are built. That’s the conclusion of an updated report from the Western Organization of Resource Councils.

(We previously covered the original report, which found similar results.)

The group said it wanted to update its original traffic study for three reasons, said Terry Whiteside, whose firm conducted the study:

  • Coal export volume at existing Canadian export terminals from the Powder River Basin has more than doubled since the 2012 study, Whiteside said. Export volumes went from 5 million to 11 million tons. He said the potential five-year volume has also increased.
  • The number of loaded and empty coal trains traveling through the Pacific Northwest from Montana and Wyoming could reach 27 to 36 per day in five years, and 47 to 63 trains per day in 10 years, according to the study.
  • Bakken oil movements through the region could compound rail traffic. These oil trains could add up to 22 trains per day, Whiteside said.

An EarthFix investigation previously examined rail congestion. It found that railroads need to make improvements to handle the projected increase in coal traffic.

“Even if the railroads make all the improvements recommended to increase their capacity, some places along the coal train route still will hit their capacity limits and trains will experience delays if all or some of the coal export terminals are built. Some rail constraints could come by 2020, others by 2030.”

One place all the coal trains will travel through is Spokane, Wash. The area is often dubbed the Spokane Funnel because of the bottleneck that’s caused when every train funnels through this one city.

Ben Stuckart, Spokane City Council President, said that Spokane’s rail capacity is 78 trains per day. Stuckart said during peak harvest season rail lines in the city are inundated with agricultural products.

“In a meeting two weeks ago at the [Government Accountability Office], I found out that oil and coal override all agricultural products. So that means, if we see an increase by 2023 of the potential of the exports and other refineries, we will actually have an inability to transport our main good in Eastern Washington,” Stuckart said.

The Spokane City Council has passed a resolution asking that all coal environmental impact statements also include Spokane. The council also unanimously called for a review of guidelines for railcars carrying crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields.

BNSF was the main focus of the rail study. Company spokeswoman Sueann Lundsberg has previously said other rail lines, like Union Pacific, will also transport coal and that BNSF will make rail upgrades as needed.

“Freight traffic will increase with or without coal export, and you’ve seen in the past that railroads have been able to accommodate that growth by the record capital investments we’ve made and will continue to make those,” Lundsberg said.

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