Monday, April 28, 2014

The Unit Train Era in Western Washington

Cook Road Interchange

I had a short pause in my ventures up the Skagit River valley. A unit train of oil tanker cars passed across Cook Road as I exited the freeway so a bit of a delay.

There were plenty of comments during the EIS scoping process for the proposed coal terminal in northwest Washington regarding train traffic impacts. All the while, projects were approved to expand the rail terminals at the Whatcom County refineries and suddenly one mile plus oil tanker unit trains from North Dakota are part of the Washington Landscape.

The trains pass across Cook Road at a reasonable speed so my delay was not too long. But note the truck in front of me. The truck was just exiting off of I-5 from the north bound lane and was blocked from completing leaving the exit ramp due to the back up of traffic. I had stopped to allow space for the exiting cars and trucks even though I had no stop. I was not able to capture the backup, but cars were backed up the entire length of the exit ramp with a few pulled over on the freeway margin before the ramp.

From a policy perspective it will be very interesting to see if any mitigation for these impacts from increasing unit trains associated with export terminals are proposed or what the threshold will be for determining which intersections or rail crossings will deemed as a significant impact. Previous projects that increased unit train traffic through the region have been approved without having to mitigate the traffic impacts (specifically rail terminal improvements at refineries in Whatcom County). Rail transit was here long before cars and trucks, but the advantages and encouragement policies given rail plus the requirement that they have to haul were given long before the idea of mile long unit trains became part of the landscape and long before cars and trucks relegated rail transit to little value to local communities. This is not a new issue, but it is new for several communities in western Washington including Cook Road. Perhaps a longer exit ramp will be needed.     

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Just as a FWIW... unit coal and tank trains are actually shorter than most of the other through manifest trains.

I believe it has to do with total tonnage and what will fit in the loading/unloading facilities.