What Coal Trains Mean for Seattle Traffic

Closing streets for hours a day to supply China's power plants.
This post is part of the research project: Northwest Coal & Oil Exports

In June, Sightline wrote about the ways that coal trains would impair traffic in Seattle. We identified specific streets—several of them critically important to freight mobility—that coal trains would shut off periodically. So we were very pleased yesterday to see the City publish a sophisticated new analysis by traffic management firm Parametrix that confirmed our findings: coal trains would shut down eight major streets by 1 to 3 hours a day, 365 days a year.

There’s already been widespread news coverage, and rightly so, including a good AP story, a terrific Northwest Public Radio piece, a nicely detailed write-up at The Stranger, solid coverage in business periodicals, and good television coverage, like this piece at King 5 News.

Information like this—spelling out the local impacts of moving millions of tons of coal to Asia—spells trouble for the coal export industry. There’s simply no way to ship that much dirty fuel without causing a heap of problems along the way.

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  1. Lenny Larson says:

    Kudos for the article on the proposed coal train fiasco if it occurs. It is the most absurd idea ever brought up by the coal and railroad companies. This must not be allowed to happen .

  2. Mattie S. says:

    This absurd and a potential disaster for a bad reason.

  3. Josh says:

    Has the same study been done on the impact on Port of Seattle traffic by a new sports arena? I would rather have the port jobs than the NBA. I would rather have coal trains than the NBA.

  4. Riley says:

    And the Port complains about an Arina in SODO????

  5. cindy s says:

    This time it is an unpopular commodity. Okay…what about next time, when we have an opportunity to export something popular, like, say solar panels.
    Another way this can be viewed is this: Seattle is proving to be a bottleneck on increasing exports and jobs in this country because we have not resolved contention between the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BSFN) main line and our city streets. What we need is grade separation, not a “stop the railroad” mantra.

  6. Washy says:

    Well well well… Here we are about a year later and we are not really any closer to one of the five export facilities be built.. But, as I stated months ago and you Eric argued it wouldn’t happen, Canada’s expanding they’re facilities to be able to handle another 18 million tons of coal by the end of next year!! (Ok, I told you so!!) So now that has come to fruition where are you going to go from here?? I can be honest and say I hate the scare tactics, it’s childish. There has never been a case the someone got canser or seriously ill cause there are coal trains going by. So what’s the next arguement?? More train traffic?? I’m sorry but I’d much rather have more trains than more trucks on the interstate. I’m from Seattle and I’m just wondering what more train traffic is going to make it hard to get around?? The damn railroad is under down town, what one crossing at the north end of the waterfront, and two south of the Mariners stadium?? Oh ya that really going to make Seattle hard to get around in the future.. What’s next?? Ya the most important part, you’ll never stop the trains from running, it’s interstate commerce and the federal government has ruled it can’t be stopped, not by a person, city, county or a state. Eric you do a fine job on here, but understand some of the things that you write are not exactly true, everyone is going to have an opionin and I don’t believe a small minority of people such stop the building of these facilities when nearly 60% of the people in both Washington and Oregon are in favor. With that being said, they should have to follow all the environmental laws and regulations, but not change the laws just cause of this commodity. I’ve lived in the PNW all my life, and hands down it is the most beautiful part of this country, and because Asia wants our coal does not mean its going to change this part of the country. There can be a balance, and it’s time to quit knit picking and come to that balance…

    • Eric de Place says:

      You’ve got your facts wrong about the Canadian port capacity. It’s a zombie myth that refuses to die. Even if we assume full expansion capacity at Fraser Surrey Docks (which is actually scheduled for a two-phase build out, with just 4 million tons in the first phase) plus full build out of Neptune… and even if we assume ALL that capacity somehow goes to US coal… it’s still not even close to the volumes of coal planned for the Cherry Point terminal.

      And that doesn’t even count all the coal planned for Longview and other points south.

      More here: http://www.sightline.org/research/coal-exports-from-canada/

      • Washy says:

        Some myth…. Westshore is expanding to 33 million tons, that’s 6 million more, Neptune to 18 million tons, that’s 10 million more, and Vancouver Metro to 8.8 million, that’s 4.4 million more… Let me figure the math here.. Yep, that would be 20.4 million tons more capacity not including Prince Rubert, I could through that 24 million tons in and that WOULD equal what would be going out of Longview.. So, lets look at this, 20.4 million tons more export coal going right through Montana, Idaho, and at this time Washington, (I say at this time cause ALL the export coal is currently running on the BNSF none on the UP), and the only gain is the railroad jobs that are being added. No tax revenue or any monies at all for Washington, the trains are going straight through.. Now, back in December you were so sure that this would never happen, I guess my sources are a little better than yours. To me it’s not the exact tonnage that will actually go across the border from the states cause I truly don’t believe that the PRB coal will fill all 20.4 million tons, but I would think around 12-16 million will. It’s the point that you were so sure that there wouldn’t be a big enough to make that big a difference, 20.4 million in additional capacity is enough to make a large difference… If your argument is it’s still not the size of the planned facilities at Cherry Point or Longview your correct, but, coal trains and a lot more coal trains are still going to keep rolling, and I thought THAT was the point….

      • Eric de Place says:


        I think you must be confused. I wrote about all those numbers when I published an updated report on the subject last July: http://www.sightline.org/wp-content/uploads/downloads/2012/07/canada-coal_2012.pdf.

        The only thing that’s new since then is Port Metro Vancouver’s plan to add 8 mmt of capacity on the Fraser, although only the first 4 mmt will be on-line anytime soon. (And that’s assuming that the growing opposition in White Rock and the City of Vancouver doesn’t have an effect.)

        Here’s what we agree on: BC coal ports are expanding their capacity. (And I think we even agree on the precise numbers, which are all publicly available.) We also agree that relatively small volumes of PRB coal are now exiting via Westshore and Ridley. What the math clearly shows, however, is that the BC expansions don’t come even close to adding the kind of capacity planned for OR and WA. Together, those plans add up to at least 140 mmt/year.

        As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, literally every single student of the coal industry agrees that BC’s ports are not a viable option for large-scale shipments of PRB coal. See here: http://daily.sightline.org/2013/02/20/no-the-coal-will-not-just-go-to-canada-episode-9274/

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