Spokane’s City Council unanimously approved a resolution last night requesting further study of the effects of coal train travel through the City of Spokane.

Spokane County is the major rail crossroad in the Inland Northwest and is the entry point for all coal coming into Washington from Montana and Wyoming. Claims are that up to 80 additional trains per day could soon start coming through the area carrying coal. Spokane already has, and always has had, a significant number of trains carrying coal pass through on a daily basis.

Between 50 and 70 trains pass through our region every day, carrying all kinds of cargo. This issue has been discussed as part of the Inland Pacific Hub (IPH) project and here is what we found out during the course of that study: 
  • According to this working paper from the IPH, the capacity of the two Class I lines through our area is 78 trains per day, which is at capacity on the UP line and nearing capacity on the BNSF line (page 89). That means the lines couldn’t physically carry another 80 trains.
  • Coal is by far the largest commodity passing through our region already (page 93) of the report above. A discussion about the volume (tonnage) and value that just passes through our area begins on page 9 of this report. Coal is again mentioned on page 16.
  • 52.6% of all freight by volume (tonnage) just passes through our region, meaning Spokane or outlying areas is not it’s final destination. 54.1% of the freight by value is through traffic. Rail carries 42.8% of the total freight by volume and 20.3% by value. 81.5% of rail freight is through traffic.
  • In reality, about 5 million more tons of coal is through traffic but it is listed as inbound or outbound on the waybills. Therefore, the through traffic on rail is actually much larger, closer to 89% of all freight via the railroads.

To help put all that into perspective (I know, it’s a lot of percentages and numbers) here is a good comparison between the capacity, fuel efficiency, emissions and safety of several shipping modes, as coal has to reach its destination through some mode of transportation.

So, according to all the statistics we have, it’s not very likely we will have 80 additional coal trains traversing our area anytime soon. While some of these reports are from 2007, SRTC staff has been keeping an eye on information out of the Washington State Department of Transportation, and the numbers still align closely.  Spokane is identified in five of WSDOT’s Freight Plans as bottlenecks.

WSDOT forecasts an increase in capacity by 2028 but it still wouldn’t be enough to accommodate 80 more trains a day. There’s also the factor that UP/BNSF’s clear priority for investment is in the Southwest at this time, not our area. 

Until this is all figured out though, City Council is concerned about public safety and the impacts on the quality of life that could be caused by more trains. Specific concerns include increased exposure to diesel particulate emissions, noise pollution, coal dust, delays in vehicular traffic, as well as potential delays in emergency medical transport.
The resolution they passed requests that the potential impacts of the trains to Spokane’s public health, safety, economy, traffic, and air quality be included as a part of the project’s Environmental Impact Study (EIS) and that a hearing be scheduled in Spokane pertaining to any project in the Northwest that may cause significant increases in rail traffic traveling through Spokane. We’ll continue to follow this issue and keep you updated.

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