How Coal Is Already Congesting Washington’s Railways

Data show coal exports would overload state rail system.
This post is part of the research project: Northwest Coal & Oil Exports

Washington’s rail system is congested in places. Adding dozens of coal trains each day, without also big new capacity improvements, could cripple the system with gridlock. All that is common knowledge. Less well-known is this: coal shipments are already causing problems.

To understand what’s going on, it’s useful to zero in on the northwest portion of the state’s railway system. Here’s a close look at northwest Washington, the area most directly affected by Cherry Point coal exports:

This Cambridge Systematics map from 2006 is the most recent comprehensive analysis of the state’s rail system. The green on the mainline between Everett and Canada indicates adequate capacity, but the numerous red dots indicate hotspots of local congestion that plague the system.

What’s happening on the ground there now? In May 2011, the regional rail experts at the Cascadia Center produced the “Cross-Border Freight Rail Improvement Study,” for the Whatcom Council of Governments (along with a companion volume “Cross-Border Passenger Rail Improvement Study). It turns out that things in the area are not going smoothly.

There are a variety of reasons, but one reason is coal.

To understand why, it’s helpful to understand the basic configuration of the rail system. Here’s a fragment of BNSF’s regional map, showing more local detail:

The mainline track extends north-south between New Westminster, BC and Bellingham. Jutting off to the west from the mainline are two branch lines, one north of the border and one south. The Canadian side’s branch line (in yellow) runs to the Westshore coal terminal at Roberts Bank; the American side has a branch line, called the Custer Intalco line, (in orange) to Cherry Point.

Coal shipments on the Canadian branch line to Westshore are already clogging the system, and for a considerable distance. In fact, the Cascadia report notes that:

Increased congestion on the east-west Roberts Bank rail corridor that BNSF uses to deliver coal to the Westshore Coal Terminal are causing the railroad to hold trains south of Bellingham.

In other words, coal trains clogging the branch line are sending ripples of congestion well down the mainline. And the same scenario will play out south of the border if coal exports began to move from Cherry Point, as the Cascadia study points out:

Future cross border shipments of coal and other commodities by BNSF may be greatly influenced by a new facility near the border proposed by SSA Marine… The entrance to the [branch line] has the potential to create an operational bottleneck if the train frequencies expected by the Terminal materialize. Industry switch engines, slowly moving loaded coal trains and the resulting empties could result in volumes of traffic that would tax the mainline and small yard that is located at Custer. With the close proximity of the border to the Custer Intalco line, future congestion may result.

“Future congestion may result” is a good candidate for the understatement of the year. To understand why, let’s do the numbers.

According to Cascadia, BNSF runs an average of 15 trains per day from the Seattle-Everett area up to Vancouver, BC plus 2 Amtrak passenger runs. Yet according to the terminal proponents, the terminal would put up to 18 roundtrip trains on the system. In other words, trains serving Cherry Point would more than double the existing rail traffic in that area. That’s before the region sees any other freight expansions, and before the region gets new passenger rail service.

Now take a closer look at the first map up above. (If it’s not clear, click to enlarge it or see page 29 of this pdf.) The red boxes display the number of trains per day (top number) and the actual practical capacity (bottom number). Between Burlington and the Canadian border there are places where the system’s practical capacity is 14, or even just 7, trains per day. In these places, of course, the system is already congested. Adding 18 trains per day doesn’t seem possible.

Here’s the point: even if we removed every single freight and passenger train—and we did nothing but serve Cherry Point—those shipments alone would swamp the northern portion of the state’s rail system.

To be sure, rail congestion is a fixable problem, at least to an extent. There are a number of infrastructure and technology improvements that would boost capacity in the system. The catch, however, is that these improvements tend to be costly, and the majority of them are likely to get billed to the public. In fact, as we’ll explore in some follow-up posts, there is good reason to worry that taxpayers—not BNSF and not the coal companies—will be asked to expand the state’s railway system to make way for coal.

In the meantime, the biggest loser may be the region’s long-sought high speed rail service. Unless taxpayers are prepared to open their wallets again, it could well turn out that reliable passenger rail in the Northwest will run into the brick wall of Asia-bound coal.

But more on that later.

This post would not have been written without valuable research assistance from Dave Kershner.

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  1. Willie Green says:

    So why are we shipping so much coal to Asia when we have such great need for energy resources of our own?

    • Jason Van Orsdol says:

      Greed by Rail more than Coal Mines, we could strangle the Chinese supposed economic powerhouse inside three weeks. No met or thermal coal shipped from the U.S and China’s manufacturing and energy generation grind dead.

  2. John Licht says:

    The current administration hates fossil fuel especially coal. EPA will not issue any new permits for upgrading or building new coal fired utility plants.
    If China didn’t hold so much of the U.S. debt, the current administration wouldn’t even be permitting coal to be exported there.


    • Eric de Place says:


      I have a VERY tough time believing that this administration hates fossil fuels. After all, they’re permitting the XL tar sands pipeline, they’re basically encouraging fracking, they’ve loosened restrictions on offshore oil drilling, and they’re continuing to lease huge quantities of coal on public land. (For a bit more on this last one see:

      I believe the Obama administration is wholeheartedly committed to ever-increasing fossil fuel use.

      • Scott M says:

        You write, “I have a VERY tough time believing that this administration hates fossil fuels.”

        You must be on the Obama Administration propaganda list.

    • Jason Van Orsdol says:

      It is not US to China debt forcing the shipments, more Rail expansion to the highest ROI ports. Rail will burn trains through wihout line maintenace until a derailment(s) occur, please do not doubt this. In response Shipper’s will pay, then the public pays.
      EPA has declared a war on coal, well, Lady L. Jackson stopped her right hand man on the word war. A new plant is going up in Arkansas now. Despite EPA to Sierra Club attacks (bomb threats) the decesion has been people need affordable energy before any economic recovery can occur in full and affordable energy must be maintained.
      EPA in numerous regulations has left the energy utilites in ‘the dark’ on how, when, why and mass regulation will be dealt with. EPA responds that if people knew better they would like asthma over anergy bill seeping up 19=22% this year by EPA regulation alone. Rail Rates are climbing like a jet fighter. Car loadings are down while profits are at record highs.

  3. Mike Klass says:

    This seem to be a prime case of using outdate information to make a case. It also shows a lack of understanding of the rail system adn how it operates by using simplistic analysis of a complex situation.

    First off, you study is almost 6 eyrs old. Much has happened to train volumes during tha time. Volumes are down and capacity exists.

    You map does not show all the routes that coal could take. In fact. trains comiing through the Cascade Tunnel via Stevens Pass are least likley.

    Taking trains to Roberts Bank is a problem, as there are 3 railroads trying to get coal into teh terminal and the US coal is less than 20% of the volume. Delays are inherent in this type of situation.

    A facility in Cherry Point would be controllable by BNSF. The cost of capital tied up in a coal train is so large ($20+ million per train set) that these trains are some of the most tightly scheduled on the railroad.

    This facility will improve fluidity, not restrict it.

    • Eric de Place says:


      I think you may have mis-read the post. Let me take your objections one by one.

      The Cambridge Systematics map is 6 years old. I used that because it is the most recent comprehensive look at the state’s rail system. If you have more recent public data, please share it.

      The analysis of coal train congestion — at Westshore and prospectively at Cherry Point — was published by Cascadia in mid-2011.

      I did not state or imply that coal would come via Stevens Pass. As I wrote in my previous post on rail congestion, which I linked to here, the Stevens Pass route is a nonstarter, at least for loaded coal trains. (You can read that post here:

      Instead, PRB coal would like run through the Columbia Gorge and then up the I-5 corridor mainline. But that doesn’t much matter: north of Burlington the mainline is single tracked and there are numerous congestion points.

      As for dozens of daily coal trains IMPROVING fluidity, that’s laughable. It’s contrary to what the experts at Cascadia have found and it’s contrary to common sense. At minimum, the burden of proof is on BNSF and the coal proponents to show that the system can handle it and that they public won’t have to pay for coal-related capacity expansions.

  4. Brandon says:

    One point that wasn’t mentioned earlier. This is not Washington’s rail system, it is BNSF’s. BNSF, as a private company, has a responsibility to their shareholders and customers. They haven’t asked for public funding to complete their double tracking between LA and Chicago, nor are they likely to for this area.

    • Eric de Place says:


      In the next post, I’ll take up public funding for privately-owned railway. In Washington, taxpayers are spending many millions of dollars on BNSF’s infrastructure. Stay tuned.

    • Jason Van Orsdol says:

      Oh my, the public pays in many ways. Eric will fill in the basics. Yet, the not so obvious such as Big Rail having Shippers’ pay to maintain the rail lines. The rail savings are kept, expenses by shippers are often passed on in considerable sums to the end use energy consumer.

  5. Greg Sthay says:

    While Seattle bitches about rail traffic , Why hasn’t Seattle done anything about Rail Safety Improvements in Seattle except for cars and that was payed for by the state/gov. funds.
    Seattle didn’t or wouldn’t act earlier ,said its all a Railroad Problem so as the body count goes up remember SEATTLE HAS DRAGED IT”S FEET FOR DECADES . CARKEEK PARK = Death Row not one penney spent by the City of Seattle . YEA MIKE THIS IS A CHALLENGE ! I DARE YOU TO RESPOND ? YOU CLOSED THE EDUCATION LEARNING CENTER SO NO PLACE FOR RAILROAD SAFETY EDUCATION PROGRAMS . BODY COUNT WILL RISE !!! The south fence fix took 17 years and the funding came from The State of Washington ,NOT SEATTLE !!

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