By Polly Keary, Editor
Monroe already gets 23 trains through town per day.
Within a couple of years, that number could be 32, and rising every year thereafter. And the new trains could be more than mile long each, all carrying coal.
And that is worrying mayors and transportation groups around Washington, including the Highway 2 Safety Coalition.
Getting coal to the coast
“I found out about the coal trains about a year ago,” said Fred Walser, chairman of the Highway 2 Safety Coalition. “I went to a SCCIT (Snohomish County Committee on Improved Transportation) meeting and Edmonds Mayor Dave Earling gave a talk at length about how the coal trains would impact Snohomish County in a big way.”
Coal production is increasing in the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming, and Asia is increasing fuel consumption. So coalmining companies are working hard to expand their access to the northwest ports.
It could be a while yet; the coalmining companies still have to get export permits.
Not only that, but the only port currently handling coal is in British Columbia. So coalmining interests are trying to get approval to back expansions of ports in Longview and Cherry Point near Anacortes, both in Washington, which will also take some time.
The permitting process alone could take a year or more; right now the process is just beginning. Coalmining operators are asking that the only impacts that permitting agencies should evaluate are those regarding the project sites. But many other interest groups, including environmentalists and the citizenry of the communities through which the trains will pass, are calling for the agencies to consider the impacts that will occur between the mines and the ports.
The cities of the Sky Valley will be among those communities affected should the trains increase.
Trains to increase year by year
A map of the routes the trains will travel if proposed coal export permits are granted reveals that they will come into the state near Spokane, travel along the Columbia Basin to the mouth of the Columbia River, and then proceed through the most heavily populated areas of Washington, hitting ports in Longview, Anacortes and British Columbia before doubling back and proceeding along the U.S. 2 corridor to loop back to Wyoming and Montana.
The first year, train traffic is expected to increase by nine trains per day. The second year, that will double to 18 trains, then double again to 36 in the third year, said Walser.
Those numbers are far from certain. BNSF Chief Executive Officer Matthew Rose has said that he thinks there will be no more than 16 coal trains through the Columbia Basin each day. But according to a study done for the Western Organization of Resource Councils, there could eventually be as many as 60 new trains per day headed for west coast ports.
Crossings, sidings and crashes
But even an increase of nine very long coal trains could impact Monroe and the Sky Valley dramatically, said Walser.
When trains have to pass each other, one of them pulls off onto a siding.
“Monroe has a major siding, and coal trains are a mile long, which means that when two trains pass, it’s going to block every street in town,” Walser said. “That means emergency vehicles can’t cross, and that’s going to be a serious problem.”
Monroe is also one of just a few Snohomish County towns that are entirely bisected by their railroad lines.
That means near-immediate downtown gridlock when a long train passes through. The more trains, the more gridlock; with a long train requiring crossing closures of about five minutes, delays could increase by 45 minutes per day.
Another factor about which citizen groups are concerned is that of coal dust. Coal cars are not covered. According to some statistics, each car loses about a pound of coal dust per mile traveled.
And sometimes trains break down. In early December, for example, a train broke down in Mount Vernon, cutting off three streets, one of them the town’s main arterial, for 45 minutes. The arterial was ultimately closed for 48 hours while BNSF repaired the track.
Railroad disasters are rare but they do happen, as well.
Last year alone, 18 coal trains derailed in the United States, one of them in Mesa, Wash. in July.
Recently the city of The Dalles, Ore. passed a resolution expressing concern about the trains. Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn estimates that coal trains could increase Seattle train crossing delays by as much as three hours per day in the next 13 years, and in November said he would work with other cities to oppose coal exports. And Edmonds Mayor Dave Earling is working to organize awareness and opposition to the trains.
Walser, however, said that he isn’t opposed to coal trains on principal.
“I’m very much in favor of jobs,” he said.
The train increases could mean a lot of jobs on the ports, especially as the ports are expanded, though few of those jobs would benefit Sky Valley citizens.
Rather, he said, there needs to be intelligent discussion.
That would include a discussion on traffic.
Walser believes that one measure that could keep traffic moving and give emergency vehicles a way across town would be to create an overpass at the Lewis Street train crossing.
“It was done in Everett on Pacific Avenue years ago, if you recall,” said Walser. “Pacific went down the hill and the railroad was at the bottom and traffic was forever disrupted, so they built an overpass.”
Lewis Street also has a grade, he said, which would make an overpass more feasible.
State and federal grants were used for the Everett project, he said.
“Why not in Monroe?” he said.
State grants might be hard to get, though. Already, WSDOT estimates that the state needs to invest about $2 billion into its current rail infrastructure, and that’s before the traffic increase. And there are other types of trains likely to increase soon, including water and oil trains.
The railroads themselves likely won’t share much in the cost. Federal regulations can only charge railroads a maximum of five percent of the cost of safety and traffic improvements to crossings.
Potential funding sources could include an increase in state spending, federal grants, and public-private partnerships, says the current WSDOT rail freight study.
Meanwhile, Monroe is due to update the list of improvements needed to the town’s transportation infrastructure; Walser suggested the city consider putting crossing improvement on the list.
Ultimately, he said, the time to address the problem is now.
“Before the trains manifest, let’s do some real planning,” he said. “I believe that our legislators and transportation groups need to start a conversation. And it is way past time when the state, the cities and the feds, in partnership with BNSF, sit down and figure out how to move train traffic in our state.”