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Northwest Railroads Will Need Improvements To Handle Coal Trains

The five coal export terminals proposed for Washington and Oregon could add dozens of trains a day to Northwest railways.

Those trains would mean new business for coal companies, railroad companies and the ports. They would create short-term construction jobs and long-term port and railroad jobs. They would generate tax revenue for the states with the ports.

Coal trains also would carry downsides.

Most communities along the coal train route will see no immediate benefits from the new rail traffic. The coal trains will simply be passing through.

People in those communities have raised concerns about the environmental impacts, including coal dust that could escape from the trains. They also are concerned about the impact the dust and diesel emissions from the locomotives will have on their health.

The long, sometimes up to 1.6 mile-long, coal trains could impact other rail traffic, too.

Seattle Skyline
Credit: Courtney Flatt/EarthFix

Freight trains already encounter bottlenecks along the same route coal trains will take from the Idaho Panhandle to the coast.

Passenger trains also move over some of those tracks, and many of them have trouble getting people to their destinations on time because of railway congestion.

People in cars and trucks all along that route spend time waiting for trains to clear the intersections they share.


Credit: Courtney Flatt/EarthFix

Source: Washington State Transportation Commission Final Report

Currently, approximately 150 to 175 trains move through the Northwest everyday.If all the coal export terminals are built, as many as 47 coal trains could be added to the daily mix over the next two decades. Half of the trains would be full of coal heading to the ports. The other half would be empty going back to Wyoming and Montana to pick up more coal from the Powder River Basin.


Projected Daily Coal Trains

  • Gateway Pacific (Cherry Point, WA): 18
  • Millennium Bulk (Longview, WA): 16
  • Port Westward (Port of St. Helens, OR): 6
  • Morrow Pacific (Ports of Morrow and St. Helens, OR): 3
  • Project Mainstay (Coos Bay, OR): 4

Total: 47 trains

Click here for more on these projects.


The BNSF Railway Company transports two to three trainloads of coal a day now through the Northwest to ports in Canada. That number could increase, too, because Canada may be building another coal export terminal.


The proposals to build coal export terminals have a lot of people and government agencies thinking about how more train traffic will impact them or the people they serve.

In 2011, a group of Washington ports and the Port of Portland commissioned a study of marine cargo and rail capacity. The state transportation agencies in Oregon and Washington helped with the study. And BNSF Railway Co. and Union Pacific Railroad provided some information.

The ports’ study was an update to the group’s 2009 report. The report looks at rail capacity under two scenarios:

  • Moderate growth: half of the coal terminals would be built.

  • High growth: all of the coal terminals would be built. This included the terminal proposed for Grays Harbor, which is now off the table. That terminal would have added two train trips a day.

Until coal came into the picture, the ports had not predicted a big jump in dry bulk cargo like coal. The ports’ 2009 study predicted dry bulk cargoes would grow by 1 percent a year through 2030. The 2011 forecast shows the annual growth rate could be as high as 9.3 percent between 2010 and 2030.

marine cargo 2-1
Credit: Courtney Flatt/EarthFix

“We’ve seen increases in wheat, soybeans and potash and possibly in bulk mineral exports like coal, although I don’t know if anyone knows those are going to come to pass or not. Throw those into the mix and what does it mean for our rail capacity forecast, and that’s what this study was designed to do,” said Eric Johnson, executive director for the Washington Public Ports Association.

The 2011 ports’ study indicates that in its current condition, the Northwest’s rail system isn’t ready for coal trains.

Under both the moderate and high growth scenarios, the study shows segments of the rail system will experience “sustained capacity constraints” by 2030 even if numerous railroad improvements are made.

“Sustained capacity constraints” means trains would face delays, Johnson said.

Welcome to The Funnel

The coal trains most likely would enter and exit the Northwest through the Idaho Panhandle. That’s where they could hit a bottleneck that runs from Sandpoint, Idaho, to Spokane, Washington.

The ports’ study (page 27) shows the 70-mile stretch of congested railway needs the following:

  • 16 miles of double tracks.
  • A third mainline.
  • More tracks for the rail bridge at Lake Pend Oreille, Idaho.

In the transportation world, this stretch of the railways is called “The Funnel.”

“They call it The Funnel because it’s a constrained area in the Spokane Valley. Both the main lines come together… It’s a chokepoint for the regional and national rail lines in our area,” said Ryan Stewart, a senior planner with the Spokane Regional Transportation Council.

BNSF and Union Pacific are the national rail lines that operate there.

On an average day, about 50 to 60 trains pass this way, according to the Inland Pacific Hub, a public and private partnership between Idaho and Washington.

The Funnel’s maximum capacity is 78 trains a day, Stewart said.

At harvest season, when farmers need to move their grain to the ports, The Funnel gets close to its limit, Stewart said. When The Funnel gets too crowded, something has to give.

“Every once in awhile there’s an issue in getting timber out of North Idaho or Eastern Washington and there’s isn’t capacity on the rail for it or there’s potentially too long of a delay, so it’s been transported by truck,” Stewart said.

If all the export terminals are built, The Funnel could see 47 more trains a day. That could push the traffic to more than 100 trains a day.

Spokane to Pasco, Wash.

If all the export terminals are built, the ports’ 2011 study predicts the BNSF rails between Spokane and Pasco, Wash., will reach capacity during its busiest times by 2025 even if the following rail improvements are made:

  • Longer double-track sidings so freight trains can pull off the mainline.
  • High-speed crossovers between sets of tracks so trains can move from one track to another without slowing down.

Going through the Gorge

The ports’ study shows that the rail system between Pasco and Vancouver, Wash., will reach its capacity limit by 2025 if all the export terminals are built and by 2030 under the moderate growth scenario. The route will reach the limits even if all the recommended improvements are made. (See pages 22 and 23.)

In addition to the improvements, the study calls out a single-track BNSF rail bridge in Pasco as an “area of concern.”

The Portland Triangle

As the coal trains move west and leave the Columbia River they’ll enter one of the most congested rail areas in the Northwest. It’s a complicated network of railroads, bridges and two ports that straddles the border of Oregon and Washington.

Transportation planners call it “The Portland Triangle.”

Portland Triangle Map-1

The ports of Portland and Vancouver, Wash., are part of the Triangle. BNSF rails stretch east along the Columbia River and Union Pacific rails move trains on the south side of the Columbia River before moving south along the Willamette River.

About 140 trains move through the Triangle every day. If the coal export terminals are built, many of the 47 additional trains will travel through the Triangle, most on the Washington side of the Columbia River and some on the Oregon side.

The 2011 ports’ study indicates improvements should be made in the heart of the Triangle where the Union Pacific and BNSF mainlines come together.

Oregon officials said there are plans for changes at that junction, but funding has not been identified to do the construction.

Trains often get backed up in that area and outside the rail tunnel that runs under parts of North Portland.

Sean Cox lives near the tunnel. He often hears trains idling off the mainline.

“Everybody’s got to take their turn down there,” Cox said. “I think the longest we’ve seen somebody down there has been for about an hour. It’s a hard sound to describe. You have a diesel engine at idle and then their brakes let off it’s like, Spew, Spew, Spew.”

Trains passing through the area cause vehicles to stop at crossings, too. Drivers in the area have figured out a shortcut around the trains — right through Cox’s neighborhood.

Sean Cox and Son in N. Portland-1
Sean Cox and his son. Credit: Bonnie Stewart

“They’ll come flying up the street with little regard for the kids and other people in the neighborhood, and I’m really concerned about what more trains will mean to traffic in this area,” Cox said.

The extra vehicle traffic is a real problem in Cox’s neighborhood. It was designed to be family friendly and good for foot traffic. There’s a park right across the street from Cox’s house where his 8-year-old son likes to play. But the walk across the street becomes dangerous when cars are dodging trains.

Columbia River Bridge opening-1

About two miles from Cox’s neighborhood is a BNSF rail bridge. Trains crossing the Columbia River between Portland and Vancouver must travel over the bridge. Trains move at slower speeds when they cross the bridge and sometimes they have to wait for the bridge to swing open so ships can pass through. If the bridge lifted, the movement would take less time.

“There’s always been an interest in improving that bridge,” said Eric Engstrom, a planner with the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. “Doing that would reduce the number of delays at the river crossing for trains and the ships,” he said.

Portland’s 2006 Freight Master Plan estimated the cost to replace the bridge at $42 million.

Vancouver, Wash. to Seattle

Freight and passenger trains moving over this segment of the rail system face many bottlenecks. The 2011 ports’ study lists numerous improvements that are needed now and to relieve congestion for the coal trains. (See pages 29-32.)

Improvements include the following:

  • New railyard at Woodland, Wash.
  • New single-track rail bridge Cowlitz River.
  • Third mainline on two segments.
  • High-speed crossovers.

Seattle to Vancouver, BC

Coal trains heading to a proposed export terminal near Bellingham, Wash., would travel some of this route.

The ports’ 2011 study shows improvements are needed on the BNSF line. But even with improvements, under moderate or high growth scenarios, the rails will reach their capacity and experience sustained capacity constraints in some areas by 2030.

Improvements include the following:

  • More tracks at Stanwood.
  • More tracks at Mount Vernon.

Rail Study Conclusion

The ports’ study reached this conclusion:

“Even moderate growth will require BNSF and UP to assess the capacity requirements necessary to meet the growing demand. Both railroads have the ability to increase capacity through a combination of physical and operational improvements, and should be able to meet growing demand well into the future.”

Still, the study shows that 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.

Union Pacific’s Aaron Hunt said the company’s railroads south of Portland are not having capacity issues because timber and agricultural business fell off during the recession.

“As we have continued to slowly pull out of the recession, we’ve seen some of that come back, but nowhere near where we were five or six years ago,” he said.

The ports’ 2011 study shows that rail traffic in Washington has “rebounded to pre-recession levels.”

BNSF officials declined to be interviewed about rail capacity issues for this story. BNSF did provide a copy of a 2012 letter it sent to the Washington State Transportation Commission. The letter was in response to a commissioner’s letter that raised concerns about coal train traffic.

In the letter, a BNSF official wrote that the company’s tracks have enough capacity for all its customers—freight or passenger. The official points to the 2011 ports’ study, acknowledging the potential capacity constraints for two areas.

“The study also indicates these potential issues are remedied with modest upgrades,” the BNSF official wrote.

Many of the remedies noted in the 2011 ports’ study are remedies that studies by Oregon and Washington government agencies have been pointing out for several years. In some cases, the recommendations are being addressed.


Both the Port of Portland and the Port of Vancouver have been making rail improvements at their marine terminals. They’ve been adding tracks that will allow long trains to pull off the mainline so other trains can pass by.

“Over the past several years, we’ve invested over $50 million in rail projects,” said Josh Thomas, a spokesman for the Port of Portland.

The port has added more tracks in its rail yards to make room for storing trains and for putting train loads together without blocking the mainlines, Thomas said.

The Port of Vancouver is building a $275 million rail bypass that will increase the port’s rail capacity and reduce some of the rail congestion in the area.

The Port of Vancouver also is getting ready to receive more train shipments from Canada. It recently signed leases with BHP Billiton to export potash, a fertilizer. By 2025, the port expects 400 trains a year to deliver the potash to the port, said Theresa Wagner, a port spokeswoman.

Those trains will be coming in on the same railways the coal trains will travel.


Freeing up rail congestion near the Port of Vancouver will be good for Amtrak passenger trains that routinely face delays on the BNSF tracks between Portland and Seattle.

Federal law gives passenger trains priority over freight trains, but that doesn’t help if the freight trains don’t have enough track space to pull over so the passenger trains can pass them.

Amtrak trains moving from Vancouver, Wash. to Vancouver, BC, have had an average on-time performance rate of about 70 percent to 75 percent over the past three years.

In Washington, BNSF is responsible for keeping Amtrak passenger trains on time.

Passenger On-Time Performance-1

Note: OTP = On-time performance. Source: Washington Department of Transportation

One of the top reasons for passenger train delays in Washington? Freight train interference.

Freight trains can be long. When they encounter a passenger train, they need enough track to pull to the side so the passenger train can pass. Freight trains also enter and exit the ports slowly, blocking the mainline. If there aren’t enough tracks, passenger trains can’t pass them.

Amtrak trains moving south of Portland on Union Pacific tracks have a better record. “We have an on-time performance of better than 90 percent,” said Aaron Hunt, a Union Pacific spokesman. Coal trains could pass through there to get to a proposed terminal at the Port of Coos Bay.


Seattle officials have raised concerns about the amount of time drivers will spend at railroad crossings if the long coal trains pass through. The city conducted an observational study of some of the city’s rail crossings.

They estimated that the gate down time for a 1.6 mile-long coal train traveling 10 mph would be about 10 minutes. The same train traveling at 20 mph could stop traffic for about 5 minutes.

Community leaders along the coal train route have questioned the impact of more gate-down time. Some are worried about the loss of even a few minutes for firetrucks and ambulances responding to emergency situations.


The Northwest has been experiencing railway changes that began after the federal government began leasing coal in the Powder River Basin. To date, most of the impact has been the result of coal moving east to electric utilities. Those coal trains have been backing up rail traffic through the middle of the country, including trains heading east carrying cargo from Northwest ports.

That shift, alone, has impacted trainloads of local Oregon and Washington products.

Two studies by the Oregon Department of Transportation, one from 2006 and another from 2010, describe the problem grain shippers are having in the Northwest. Grain is shipped by the carload and usually there are not enough freight cars of grain to make an entire train, called a unit train. The 2006 study describes the problem this way:

“Railroads are using pricing to turn aside lower-profit carload freight in favor of intermodal and coal traffic which can be handled cost-effectively and profitably in bulk unit trains. …Shippers who are used to being price setters, are now price takers. The strong growth in intermodal traffic is slowly eroding the railroads’ capacity to serve local Oregon and Washington State industrial and agricultural carload traffic.”

If the coal export terminals are built, local commodities and products will have to compete for space on the rail with coal trains going east and coal trains moving west. That could mean trucks would have to pick up part of that business.


It is hard to say how many of the proposed export terminals could come online or when they could begin sending coal to Asia.

They all are in various stages of securing state and federal permits, a process that has been met with heated public debates.

Fifty-eight members of Congress, have asked agencies to expedite the permitting process.

The governors of Washington and Oregon have asked “”) the White House Council on Environmental Quality to consider the global climate and air quality impact from leasing coal from federal lands and exporting it.

The Council on Environmental Quality has been having meetings about the coal export issue with top leaders in agencies involved in leasing federal land and permitting export terminals.

How those discussions will impact the proposed terminals in Oregon and Washington is not yet clear.

What Northwest leaders do know is that whether all or some of the coal export terminals are built, many segments of the Northwest rail system are not yet ready for 47 coal trains.

2011 Pacific Northwest Marine Cargo Forecast Update and Rail Capacity Assessment

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