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Coal And Oil Trains Would ‘Consume Most Of The Existing Rail Capacity’ In West, Report Says

By Tom Kenworthy  

"Coal And Oil Trains Would ‘Consume Most Of The Existing Rail Capacity’ In West, Report Says"

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Coal trains idle on the tracks near Gillette, Wyo.

Coal trains idle on the tracks near Gillette, Wyo.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Matthew Brown

Even with the collapse of plans for building 3 of 6 proposed coal export terminals in Oregon and Washington, the amount of coal that could move from the Powder River Basin to export facilities in the U.S. Pacific Northwest and British Columbia by 2023 could still be huge and cause major rail traffic headaches in the region, according to a new study.

The report, by the Western Organization of Resource Councils, predicts that within a decade the number of coal trains, full and empty, moving from mines in Wyoming and Montana across the northern plains and northwest could reach 63 a day. Add in the projected 22 trains carrying crude oil from the Bakken field in North Dakota to proposed and existing oil terminals on the coast and then returning empty to the Bakken and the daily traffic could reach 85 trains a day.

“The voluminous and very profitable…export coal traffic and profitable Bakken oil traffic….would consume most of the existing rail capacity, which would displace traffic and result in higher freight rates for other rail shippers,” the report says. The analysis — titled “Heavy Traffic Still Ahead,” is an updated version of an earlier report in 2012 by the organization, which is a network of regional community action organizations stretching from the Dakotas to Montana, Wyoming and Colorado.

Terry Whiteside, co-author of the study and a longtime transportation expert, said in a telephone press conference that over the next decade if the remaining coal terminal projects are built there would be extensive problems with railway congestion and traffic problems in the region. “The impact on cities and towns is enormous,” he said, adding that competition with more profitable coal and oil traffic would mean higher rates for grain shippers.

Of particular concern is a rail line linking Sandpoint, ID to Spokane, WA. known as “the Funnel.” Three major BNSF routes feed into that line, which currently sees about 50 freight trains a day. “Rail traffic over this important bottleneck could easily double and exceed its current capacity of approximately 70 trains per day,” the report predicts. A second choke point is a roughly 25 mile stretch of rail in Montana that runs through Billings, the state’s largest city, and which could see a tripling of the number of trains through the heart of downtown.

As the three proposed U.S. coal export terminals are moving through the process of lengthy environmental reviews by state and federal agencies, existing facilities in British Columbia have been expanding, or planning to expand. If all those expansion plans are completed, 3 of the Canadian terminals will be able to ship more than 83 million tons of coal a year. The report estimates that the U.S. and Canadian terminals together could be shipping 170 million tons of Powder River Basin coal a year to mostly Asian markets by 2023 if the 3 proposed U.S. terminals are completed.

The large expansion of rail traffic in the region would likely require substantial upgrades to existing tracks, and “state and local governments would likely be forced to spend hundreds of millions…in related infrastructure improvements to mitigate the adverse impacts of added coal traffic if the ports are built, such as separated grade crossing, bridges, tunnels and by-passes,” the report says.

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