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Old April 18th, 2005, 09:11 PM   #1
GVNY
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Severe Rail Bottleneck

Transportation officials seek solution to bottlenecks on rails
By BRAD WONG
SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER REPORTER

Puget Sound-area port officials often boast that they can handle the goods arriving to meet an insatiable nationwide demand for inexpensive Asian imports.

In the region's transportation network, though, the bottleneck in the coming years likely won't be the ports, but the train system.

Trains hauling international cargo and other goods from the Puget Sound area over Stevens Pass will encounter congestion by 2009, according to a report conducted for the Washington Public Ports Association.

The reason: Stevens Pass, one of the main and direct rail lines to the major inland market of Chicago, has a sustainable capacity of 28 trains per day. But by 2009, especially near the winter holiday season, those tracks could see a peak of 34 trains daily.

"This is not a simple fix," said David Hatzenbuhler, MainLine Management Inc. president and the author of the report. Using import projections of sea cargo, he estimates that Stevens Pass could see about 50 daily trains by 2025.

A second track and other major rail improvements to the pass are unlikely because of that area's steep topography. Improvements, his report said, could cost $500 million.

Higher demand could divert trains to routes along the Columbia River, a flatter area. But on that route, which also can be crowded, it can take longer to bring time-sensitive goods to market.

With more imports in mind, BNSF Railway Co., one of the main freight haulers in Washington, is considering improving Stampede Pass, the third major rail route across the state.

The pass cannot accommodate international cargo, which travels double-stacked on train beds and can stand more than 20 feet high. MainLine Management estimates that adding about 3 feet of space through the pass tunnel, either by lowering the tracks or notching its ceiling, will cost $25 million.

"We are looking at the possibility of modifying the Stampede Pass tunnel to accommodate international cargo containers," company spokesman Gus Melonas said.

BNSF, the state Transportation Department, shippers and the ports of Seattle and Tacoma have yet to identify specific improvements necessary or the source of funds they would need.

"That has yet to be determined. We're in uncharted territory," said Barbara Ivanov, freight strategy director for the Transportation Department.

Hatzenbuhler believes that tens of millions of dollars, if not hundreds of millions, worth of railroad improvements are needed statewide to avoid gridlock associated with increased rail demand.

"Millions won't get this job done in the short term," he said. "The railroads alone cannot fund this. We're not just talking about international trade. The railroads are in a much bigger business than that."

Garbage, passengers, boxcars, automobiles and grain, in addition to international cargo trains, make their way throughout the state by rail.

Historically, railroads have paid for their own infrastructure improvements. But given the scope of rail upgrades necessary, Melonas said, his company wants to talk with the state government and the ports about a partnership in funding.

The ports association released the rail capacity study last year, months before delays at Southern California ports got national attention and pushed more cargo ships to the Puget Sound area. This year, the report is taking on greater significance because of the increase in port traffic.

The ports of Seattle and Tacoma report that at least 60 percent of all the international cargo that goes through their facilities is destined for major inland markets. Last year, according to the Port of Tacoma, nearly $17 billion worth of imported goods moved on long-distance rail to other markets.

If the anticipated rail problems are not fixed, "The cargo could go elsewhere," Port of Seattle Commissioner Patricia Davis said.

The port's cargo director, Michael Burke, believes that public policy officials still have time to find solutions to any possible rail congestion. "This is not a crisis," he said. "But we are very concerned to make sure the rails can work."

Last edited by GVNY; April 18th, 2005 at 09:21 PM.
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Old April 18th, 2005, 09:21 PM   #2
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Due to the back log of traffic and cargo in California and the huge demand for Asian products , major sea traffic has been rerouted to the Puget Sound ports of Tacoma and Seattle. These shipping companies depend primarily on rails to transport their cargo.

With the extra traffic on these lines, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway (BNSF) is already strained. Now add the possibility of Amtrak trains serving the Cascades, we are in a rail transport crisis.

Now for those who do not understand the situation or just don't know the area, as of right now, there are 3 direct rail routes across the Cascade mountain range in Washington State.

The Stevens Pass route located by the red line.

Stampede Pass route located by the blue line.

The Gorge route located by the orange line near the bottom.




The steep Stevens Pass main line leaves Spokane and travels west, across the Columbia River into Wenatchee. From this point, the rail line extends over the Cascade Range via the historic 8-mile long Cascade Tunnel. The line continues west into Everett where it joins the BNSF north-south main line. It takes a train 45 minutes to clear the Cascade tunnel and another 15 minutes to clear the tunnel of fumes before another train can pass. That is 24 trains a day max and Stevens pass has reached capacity. Stevens mainly carries intermodal traffic.

The Columbia River Gorge route is from Spokane to Vancouver, Washington (Columbia River Gorge main line). To reach the Columbia River Gorge main line from Spokane, the route follows the former Northern Pacific (NP) main line out of Spokane through Cheney, Ritzville, and Connell to Pasco. The old NP main line then connects with the Columbia River Gorge main line in Pasco, following the north bank of the Columbia River from Pasco into Vancouver, Washington. She is primarily a flat grade and this route is near if not at its capacity.

And finally Stampede Pass. Recently reopened after the tracks were torn up due to lack of traffic in the 1980's, only 6 trains pass through each day. To reach the Stampede Pass line from Spokane, it is necessary to follow the Pasco East main line to Pasco. This connects with the Stampede Pass main line which continues northwestward up the Yakima Valley. A number of communities are located along this route, including Kennewick, Prosser, Toppenish, Yakima, Ellensburg, and Cle Elum.
From Ellensburg the line continues towards the Cascade Mountains where it rises to 2,840 feet and crosses the mountains at Stampede Pass via the 1.8-mile long Stampede Tunnel. The rail line continues west into Auburn where it joins the BNSF north-south main line. From here the main line continues north towards Seattle and south towards Tacoma and Portland, Oregon.

Stevens Pass and the Columbia Gorge route are already too congested to handle extra traffic, nor any Amtrak trains. Both routes would have a second main line constructed to handle the excess traffic, but scenery and topography would make that difficult and very expensive.

The best option would be to fully reopen Stampede Pass. The former Burlington Northern, faced with declining traffic in the early 1980s, took the 77.9-mile Stampede Pass route out of service indefinitely. That indefinitely was short lived. In 1997, faced with a large traffic resurgence, BNSF partially reopened Stampede Pass to allow the excess trains alternate passage, outside the clogged Stevens and Gorge routes. And as I said, partially. This line is closed to intermodal traffic as container cars are too tall for the low ceiling. Notching of the roof as done with Cascade Tunnel (look at the upper edges) or lowering of the floor is required for all trains too pass smoothly over Stampede, along with extensive track and signal upgrades. Cost could be in the several of millions of dollars, but this is the best option for our state's railroad traffic. This could also handle Amtrak traffic.

But if BNSF and the state fail to realize any of the options listed above, there certainly will be a severe crisis on our hands. Traffic would be rerouted to other ports, and our railroads, ports, trucking companies and the economy would suffer.

Last edited by GVNY; April 18th, 2005 at 10:04 PM.
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Old April 18th, 2005, 11:55 PM   #3
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Uh oh! Rail congestion! We already have car and truck congestion since for a long time. I hope they find a way to reduce rail congestion due to the high demand of Asian imports, it really sucks.
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Old April 19th, 2005, 05:39 AM   #4
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Thanks for all the info. It's nice to now have someone in-the-know, in the rail business.

Wow, it takes 15 minutes to clear the cascade tunnel from fumes?? I'm guessing it chokes up the diesels in the locos no? Maybe they could find a way to move air better in there. Like have a giant fan sucking air through..
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Old April 19th, 2005, 06:04 AM   #5
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I've got several related articles in this thread here about the Ports of Seattle and Tacoma:
http://www.skyscrapercity.com/showthread.php?t=164572
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Old April 19th, 2005, 06:08 AM   #6
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Y'know, not long ago I read a history of the Columbia Basin. There used to be a whole lot more railroads over in eastern Washington, but over time a lot of them were abandoned. From reading that stuff, it almost sounds as if they coulda used some of the closed ones, after all.
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Old April 19th, 2005, 06:11 AM   #7
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Also, as for alternatives, they're already thinking about a major new container terminal at Prince Rupert, BC. Seems there's plenty of rail capacity going into the Canadian interior from there:
http://www.skyscrapercity.com/showpo...1&postcount=37
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Old April 20th, 2005, 05:31 AM   #8
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Prince Rupert I hear is an alternative, but I think shipping companies and I can agree, it is just so far away. It would be a last resort.

Another alternative to the congestion would be to reopen Milwaukee Road's rail line through Snoqualmie. Of course that would be after a complete Stampede reopening and Stevens and the Gorge double tracked as a full reopening of the old MR would cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Seeing trains in Snoqualmie would be something after all of this time, though.You can still see the trestles hugging the mountains.

And yes, it takes at least 15 minutes to clear the tunnel. The fan already up at Berne (East Portal) is outdated and could be replaced.
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Old April 20th, 2005, 08:01 AM   #9
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A distant far out future potential route is a tunnel under Naches Pass, also a potential future westerlty route of Interstate 82 from Yakima to Tacoma. The feds have set aside the Naches Pass corridor from becoming wilderness area because of its potential future transportation uses. It would directly connect the Yakima Valley with Tacoma freeing up congestion through Snoqualmie Pass (or Stampede & Stevens with rail).
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Old April 20th, 2005, 08:10 AM   #10
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Quote:
Originally Posted by GVNY
Prince Rupert I hear is an alternative, but I think shipping companies and I can agree, it is just so far away. It would be a last resort.

Another alternative to the congestion would be to reopen Milwaukee Road's rail line through Snoqualmie. Of course that would be after a complete Stampede reopening and Stevens and the Gorge double tracked as a full reopening of the old MR would cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Seeing trains in Snoqualmie would be something after all of this time, though.You can still see the trestles hugging the mountains.

And yes, it takes at least 15 minutes to clear the tunnel. The fan already up at Berne (East Portal) is outdated and could be replaced.
Though it's farther by rail from most main markets, the advantage of Prince Rupert is that it's 30-40 hours closer to Asia by boat. Over in SSP they've got a whole thread dedicated to the issue:
http://forum.skyscraperpage.com/show...threadid=73363
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Old April 20th, 2005, 09:59 PM   #11
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Prince Rupert is not an option for BNSF. Why would my company, with congestion from the Tacoma and Seattle ports, even want to begin serving Prince Rupert? Maybe for CP and CN, but BNSF needs to work out the line kinks here before it even thinks about north of the border, and the chances of that are zero. It just makes no sense.

And I don't know why Northern Pacific chose Stampede instead of Naches as its main route through the Cascades, as the pass has easier grades.

And if anybody was wondering why they closed the Milwaukee Line, it just wasn't economically feasible for Burlington Northern (BN, pre-merger with Santa Fe SF) at the time. Although the line has the easiest grades of all mountain passes through the Washington Cascades, the trestles hugging the mountain pass were probably just to expensive to renovate and keep in operation.
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Old April 21st, 2005, 12:19 AM   #12
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^ Plus the rails to trails crowd is trying to convert the old Milwaukee Road into the John Wayne trail.
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Old April 21st, 2005, 02:48 AM   #13
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I wonder if the state would allow them to convert the former ROW to a trail, seeing there is much need for more routes across the Cascades in the future. Especially a main corridor.
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Old April 21st, 2005, 02:49 AM   #14
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I also don't think it is feasible. Those trestles would be very expensive to rebuild, as after 1987, when the tracks were torn up, many slides and wash outs have knocked down portions of the trestles, and there is thick overgrowth in the area.
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Old April 21st, 2005, 03:01 AM   #15
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Rails to trails are pretty popular around here. Many in the (anti) progressive crowd hate railroads. There are many popular rails to trails around here & they build them slowly in stages. Seattle's Burke Gilman Trail, the connecting Sammamish Trail, Olympia's Chehalis-Western trail, the Yelm-Tenino trail, & the Spokane Valley Centennial Trail are some examples.

Here is some info on the John Wayne trail from various places I googled up:

http://accessibletrails.com/NoPuget/I90_King.htm

http://www.spokaneoutdoors.com/jw.htm

Last edited by Sounder; April 21st, 2005 at 03:08 AM.
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Old April 21st, 2005, 03:16 AM   #16
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They also converted the former Great Northern line from Scenic to Wellington (West portal of Old Cascade Tunnel) that was abandoned upon completion of the new Cascade tunnel in 1929. Fantastic scenery from up there and the history is incredible.

http://www.bcc.ctc.edu/cpsha/irongoat/default.htm
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Old June 25th, 2005, 09:14 AM   #17
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GVNY I just found this and posted it in my other thread:
http://www.skyscrapercity.com/showpo...&postcount=285
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Last edited by Bond James Bond; June 25th, 2005 at 09:21 AM.
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