Sunday, July 17, 2011

Bellingham and Fort Collins - Bikes, Beer and Coal Trains - a Tale of Two Cities

Update: An alert reader noted long coal trains were passing through Bellingham as early as 2005 and included a dated photograph.

A long coal train pulls through Fort Collins, Colorado

Bellingham, Washington and Fort Collins, Colorado share some traits. They are similar in size, are proximal to large cities(Seattle and Denver) but are too far away to be suburbs, they are near mountains and both cities are highly regarded bicycle and beer communities. Bellingham and Fort Collins share another trait; coal trains from Montana and Wyoming pass through both cities on the way to supply electric power plants.

The proposed coal terminal northwest of Bellingham at Cherry Point has raised concerns about increased train traffic that would generated. I began noticing long coal trains began passing through Bellingham on the way to the Roberts Bank coal terminal in southwest British Columbia approximately one year ago; however, long coal trains were passing through Bellingham at least as early as 2005 according to a reader. But the number of trains has been limited due to the fact the Roberts Bank terminal is essentially operating at capacity with the bulk of its coal coming from mines in Canada. Some of the Cherry Point coal terminal opponents have argued that the increased train traffic through Bellingham will greatly hamper redevelopment of the Bellingham waterfront as the rail line passes through the waterfront area. The Port of Bellingham has claimed that this would not be so as the redevelopment will include a realignment of the railroad and the construction of overpasses. Although how the realignment and overpasses will be paid for is a lingering question. Some project opponents have been running newspaper adds with a train in the advertisement. Early on some City of Bellingham leaders and train opponents in Bellingham publicly suggested rerouting the trains along the Highway 9 area through the South Fork Nooksack Valley and through eastern Whatcom County to avoid Bellingham altogether. This idea was not particularly welcome by the residents living in eastern Whatcom County.

All this talk about trains sensitized me to the hearing of train horns and looking at train traffic. Last fall I was in Fort Collins, Colorado crossing train tracks several times each day I was there but I hardly noticed the trains. On my most recent trip to Fort Collins I was hyper aware of the trains and noted the trains passing through the city.

The main rail line in the area passes through downtown Fort Collins after it crosses the main north-south U.S. Highway at the north end of the downtown area. The railroad then heads north-south parallel to the highway (the main downtown street) one block west of the highway. The railroad line runs down the middle of the street on this route. There are no overpasses in the downtown area or at the main highway crossing just north of downtown.

The level of train traffic in Fort Collins is approximately the same as what is projected to pass through Bellingham if the coal terminal is constructed at Cherry Point. Approximately 20 trains pass through Fort Collins each day. Some of the trains passing through Fort Collins are one mile plus long coal trains. I also saw very long trains of liquid petroleum tanks. Fort Collins is not a railroad quiet zone; the horn is blared throughout the time the trains transit through the city at a frequency much more than the frequency of horn blaring in Bellingham. Where there are several street crossings of the tracks in Bellingham, in Fort Collins the train tracks run down the middle of a very urban street with dozens of street crossings. The trains passing through Fort Collins travel at speed of approximately 10 mph. Crossing wait times were as much as 9 minutes.

Approaching BNSF pulling coal cars

View down Madison Street looking south
View looking north at the same time as the picture above

Tanker cars pass through Fort Collins

Trains have been part of Fort Collins life for a long time and perhaps the residences there simply adjusted a long time ago. I did talk to some that did not like the trains, but accepted them as part of life in Fort Collins - the primary complaint was the noise of the horns at night. I was staying a block and a half from the tracks and definitely heard the train. The train does pass through the Colorado State University campus as well as numerous bars and taverns and this is not a good combination from a safety perspective as drunks try to hop the train for a lift through the city.

I was interested if the presence of a busy railroad track with noise and delays at crossings disrupted development or business. Perhaps Fort Collins is unique, but the train traffic did not seem to have had any appreciable impact on development in the downtown area or even on the street immediately abutting the tracks. I was told that there was a bar that discounted drinks when the train passed by.

Breakfast by the tracks which are located in the middle of the street on the right

Busy street scene abutting tracks

Cafe with outdoor eating area next to rail line

Organic cafe next to tracks

Bakery and yoga along the rail line

Folks enjoying outdoor eating as the train passes by

In addition to the numerous restaurants with outdoor eating and many shops there are a large number of new buildings including large office buildings near the tracks and even on the street the trains pass down.

Although the trains do not appear to have greatly diminished development in Fort Collins, there has been talk of building a new railroad line through eastern Colorado to avoid many of the Front Range communities that have grown just east of the Rocky Mountain front. This would move considerable freight train traffic away from several cities and make shipping freight through eastern Colorado much faster. This is particularly true of shipping Powder River coal from Wyoming to power plants in Texas. However, this possible railroad line would not decrease train traffic passing through Fort Collins.

The proposed Cherry Point coal terminal presents a number of interesting policy issues. Train traffic is simply one. In speaking with people about trains in Fort Collins, it was clear that there was a range of opinion and acceptance. Given the huge coal reserves the United States has and the unlikely political support to reduce CO2 emissions at the national level, coal freight trains may be a challenge for many communities. But at least in Fort Collins the city with the railroad running through its downtown streets seems to be doing OK.

I have previously posted on the proposed coal shipping terminals in Washington State as this issue is a great example of process and policy and how our Washington State landscape is shaped. Initially the Cherry Point coal terminal proponents launched a very strong PR campaign coal-terminal-preemptive-strike. Opponents have rallied in opposition cherry-point-coal-terminal-update, and the issue has now become politicized at least at the local level coal-politics-comes-to-washington.

No comments: