Runaway Train

Eighteen dirty, noisy, car-stopping coal trains a day are barreling toward Seattle. And there may not be anything we can do to stop them.


Thanks for the write-up Goldy. I hadn't yet thought of the impacts that this export project might have here in the city; I've been too hung up on the grim fact that the train, losing a ton of coal dust along the way, follows the Columbia River the entire way West!
I agree with the sentiments of this article, without a doubt, but I must offer a correction on a slight factual error: the City of Bellingham is not a permitting authority for the Cherry Point project. If they were, the project would likely be history already.

The Cherry Point project is located in unincorporated Whatcom County, so it's the Whatcom County Council that holds the permitting authority. They too appear hesitant to let the thing proceed, but they're a predictably less environmentally-friendly bunch than the City of Bellingham.
I was playing basketball with my son at a small court that is on Elliot right next to the Art institute last week when a train rolled by trailing a horrible rotten fish stench. I told my son that it must be one of the garbage trains but when we looked down it was car after uncovered car of coal. So much for that Vibrant waterfront we were sold on.

Thought: Get Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell to contact Democrat campaign donor and BNSF owner Warren Buffet to do something about it.
I'm starting to wonder if people aren't exaggerating, or being hysterical.

Here in Denver, we have who knows how many coal trains pass through every day, all of it from Powder River basin. The line is about a mile or so west of my house, parallel to a major north-south arterial, and the tracks run together with our light rail line. I see them every day, and sometimes they go right by me when I'm waiting for the light rail.

First, there's no rotten fish smell. There's no discernible smell at all. So @ 3, not sure what you and your son smelled, but I doubt it was the coal train.

Second, there's no discernible amount of coal dust either. You can look right down on the tracks and there's none to be seen, never mind the passenger platform that's five feet from the tracks. Also, these trains pass by some very pricey homes on their way out of town, right against their property lines, and no one complains. You know upper middle class people; if it's annoying, they make a shit-ton of noise about it.

They may well tie up SODO traffic if there are 18 more every day, but arguing that they're filthy is completely unsupported.
Let's not forget about Carkeek Park, where the trains roll directly beneath a pedestrian bridge leading to the beach.
There is already a near-daily coal train, but it's relatively small, only ~25 cars, with open tops so you can see all the goodness in there.

The more-than-daily garbage trains, do quite a bit to screw up traffic; due to the fact that they are doing so much switching.

The Sounder and Amtrak trains, run at speed through (30mph?) SODO, and do not cause nearly the congestion that the garbage train causes.

But 18 trains a day? SODO cannot deal with that. There's a lot of people and cars and work and stuff going on down here. It's a working neighborhood...

It's my understanding the Lummi tribe can kill the project, as they are a stakeholder in any project that requires a federal shoreline permit in their area. Here's hoping that if the Whatcom County Council says yes, the tribe will say no and kill this dirty deal.
The train impacts are the tip of the iceberg. They've got to ship the coal to China. That means 487 of the largest bulk carriers in the world coming through the San Juan Islands to Cherry Point and then back out the Straits, up the coast, then through the Aleutian Islands. They follow the same route as migrating salmon. That's 487 a year coming in which means more than 900 additional transits a year.

The ships will be single hulled, 2.5 to 3 football fields in length and it takes miles for one to stop, depending on the load. To what extent will this level of ship traffic - added to existing traffic - increase the likelihood of a catastrophic accident in Puget Sound?
The train impacts are the tip of the iceberg. They've got to ship the coal to China. That means 487 of the largest bulk carriers in the world coming through the San Juan Islands to Cherry Point and then back out the Straits, up the coast, then through the Aleutian Islands. They follow the same route as migrating salmon. That's 487 a year coming in which means more than 900 additional transits a year.

The ships will be single hulled, 2.5 to 3 football fields in length and it takes miles for one to stop, depending on the load. To what extent will this level of ship traffic - added to existing traffic - increase the likelihood of a catastrophic accident in Puget Sound?
Speaking purely from a practical viewpoint, why aren't they taking the coal out through Longview? Less distance, less dust, no SoDo.
Nothing like a single hull coal ship burning in open water to ruin your day.
Today's coal train was nearly 100 cars and NOT moving at 30mph. (it did not smell like rotten fish, but it DOES have a smell.) It was co-incided by a long container-truck train.

The co-incidence caused gridlock. That's 2 trains, and then gridlock.

Good luck, SODO.
Hey i'm glad that you all straightened me out about that smell. I guess I was mistaken that the moment the train rolled by that unbearable stink occured. Or maybe I was there and none of were so, there is that.
I have to wonder why the trains will be routed via Portland to reach Bellingham. That seems insane.

Especially since BNSF has lines that run due west from Spokane and can reach Bellingham without going through Seattle. Why would you bother to do that?
@ 15, I've smelled many more coal trains than you have. You're either mistaken about the source of the fish smell (for instance, maybe someone had dumped some trash on the tracks and that train hit it), or there was something wrong with that one load.
@ 16, there was some SLOG post several weeks ago that showed that those direct tracks are already running the maximum traffic they can, so these other trains have to take a more southerly route. (My recollection was that it wasn't THAT far south, but I'm not going to bother trying to find the post now.)

I have wondered why the trains have to go all the way to Bellingham when they could just go to Tacoma, but I think the ports bid on the project and Bellingham won. Don't quote me on that, but that's what I think I read happened.
Regarding the lost coal dust... Nearly all of that is lost back at the mines, when the trains are loading up and then first exposed to the winds as they leave. They DON'T leave a continuous cloud of dust the whole length of their journey, so this article's illustration and accompanying claims that SODO and the Seattle shoreline are going to be polluted with coal dust is misleading to the point of being false reporting.

I couldn't find any verification for the claim that "each car" loses a "ton" of coal dust on "each trip." The same link I've provided claims that BNSF has reported losses of "500 pounds" (that's only 1/4 of a ton) per car for a 500 mile trip, but their link back to BNSF doesn't report any figure at all. But whatever the figure, it's still mostly lost back in the Powder River basin.
Cherry Point is only one of the proposed coal ports. There are a total of six, from Cherry Point down to Coos Bay, Oregon. Seems to me they are throwing a bunch of sh** against the wall to see what sticks. There are ongoing anti-coal programs for the whole length of the rail run. Get involved.
If each train loses up to a ton of dust during transit, how much additional dust is created when the coal is off-loaded from train to the holding areas and when loaded onto the coal ships? It seems to me that each time the coal is moved it will create a huge amount of additional effluvia at the shoreline. Are there any requirements to contain run-off to protect coastal waterways?
This piece expands on Seattle's ability to regulate interstate commerce. Goldy's right that existing law doesn't allow this...

i103 strips corporate constitutional privileges (like the commerce clause) and its authority for doing this is the voters of Seattle telling the municipal corporation of Seattle to do so:…
Once again, insane wealth, abuse of power and greedy corporations continue to destroy the world.

Can we take away their filthy money? Maybe THAT would shut 'em up and keep them from coming through here.
If we are going to do this - and I'm not saying we should, but greed does seem to be the order of the day - why don't they run them across Stevens Pass, and up to Bellingham via Everett? Why do they have to go through Seattle?

@ 25, see @ 19.
Matt dear, you obviously have inhaled too much coal dust: you can't smell it anymore, and you assume slog is some sort of expert source on railroad routing.

But I - Amtrak wife that I am - am always willing to compromise. Take the Empire Builder off of Stevens Pass, and send it over Stampede Pass. Give the north-of-Seattle Sounders and Cascade priority. The rest of it is BNSF's problem.
Catalina dear, ordinarily I credit Slog with about as much authority on these matters as I do Fox News. But that post in particular linked to a much wonkier blog that impressed me as likely knowing what they were talking about. Again, I don't feel like looking it up so I hope you can trust me there. (Their route wasn't down near the Columbia, either.)
The issue of lost dust/missing weight can be attributed to outgassing of volatiles during the trip. After all, it has been sitting en masse underground in the Powder River area for hella years (eons), was just extracted, depressurized, broked all into little pieces, and processed. It's really not surprising that a carload would lose that much weight being exposed to air as it is now.

So I think that the dust argument is bogus, and I'm surprised it hasn't been defended as such. That being said, I don't want this train running through Seattle and ask - if there is an export terminal being built in Longview, ummm hello? Why don't we send Cherry Point's exports out of Longview? It is on the way. Or would that just be too easy?

I was just up on the Lummi Reservation last weekend, and there are "no coal train" signs all over the place.
Not sure if these are pre- or post- hair spray, but some scary pics of coal dust rising from trains:…

But to be fair, I lived not too far from where the coal trains passed through Denver as well and I never smelled it or found coal dust around my home.
The train would pass through The City of Bellingham right next to our bay and through downtown streets so of course both our City and County Council have a vote that impacts the permitting process. All the citizens of our city and county elected our council people and all actively participate in protecting the environment.
The train passes through the center of downtown City of Bellingham. The train traverses right next to our bay. Both the City and County most likely participate in voting on the permitting process. We voted for our council members and all people in both the city and county work together to protect the environment. I beg to differ that our county council is less environmentally friendly than our city council people.

Does the Seattle City Council have no say about the permit for the additional coal train traffic?
On a local level, it sounds like a SODO traffic (and car exhaust pollution) nightmare in the making. On a global level, it's not exactly a step toward reducing carbon emissions.
The tracks from Seattle to Bellingham are closed at least 20 times during the winter and spring (from a few hours to a few days) by massive mud slides onto the tracks. Amtrak trains, which are lower priority than private train runs, are often cancelled for days. Double the number of freight trains getting priority on that iffy route, and you can probably kiss Amtrak travel goodbye. So much for "getting out of our cars" and "using mass transit" to get to Vancouver or Portland.
I have a few more corrections. The trains go through Spokane, then to the Columbia Gorge and head north at Vancouver, pulled and pushed by 4 bigger, stronger, louder more polluting locomotives because mile-and-a half-long trains are heavy, which is why they can't go over the mountains. However. There are only 9 full trains per day on average that would be going to Cherry Point. The 9 empty trains are lighter and most likely would head east from Marysville to go over the mountains and not back through Seattle.
@36, No, the empty trains would not head east at Marysville; not even coal terminal boosters are claiming that. The rail line that goes through Stevens pass is already over-capacity. Some of the empty trains could go through Stampede Pass (the grade is too steep for the loaded trains), but that would still route them through through Seattle first.
@2 Noted and corrected. Thanks.
Goldy, thank you so much for an excellent article on this topic. I was turned into a sudden Sierra Club member when a friend who lives in Edmonds spoke passionately about actually watching one of these trains roll by through an Edmonds crossing and how she'd joined the anti-coal group. For more information on how to get involved there is this:
Robin Everett
Organizing Representative
206-378-0114 x308

I urge anyone who has doubts about what sifts off of those coal cars to watch the video at
I grew up in a neighborhood that had a nearly continuous flow of freight trainss. Maybe 10 a day, and a lot of those were coal, miles long. It was just not a problem.

Seattle people can be so pissy. And I'll bet these are the same people on the street corner, demanding jobs...

The only really problematic thing here, besides SODO residents having to wait at stop lights (oh the horror), is the issue of China burning that much more coal. But you know what? China doesn't give a fuck. China's going to get the coal, one way or the other.
We are all in this together. The trains passing through Seattle also go through Vancouver, WA and the historic and national scenic route Columbia Gorge. Portland where I live will only have a mere 8 trains a day but we are in the same air and water shed as Vancouver where 28 full trains and 28 empty trains a day will chug through.

12:00 to 3:00 at the St Johns RR Cut on N Lombard and Gilbert.
for information go to goodgrowthnw dot org or contact Bonnie at
China will get the coal and burn it as fast as they can. They are one of the world leaders in not giving a fuck about pretty much anything, like, I don't know, the environment. They really get pissed when something gets in the way of it's manufacturing and selling to America, so it should be assumed money and power from both countries will prevail, as it usually does.

Sorry to sound so gloomy.
@37. Thanks Goldy. Please note that I wrote most likely go over the mountains heading east. I haven't heard an official yay or nay that trains would return through all the towns to Seattle. If you are correct, then it would surely give more to argue against the coal trains doubly affecting the quality of life for many.
Wow, I don't know were to start. I'm from the Powder River and never did I smell fish. The coal dust issue: 1 pound per car per mile, or 1 ton per car per trip or what ever is old data. BNSF has addressed this issue.… And, # 31 that picture is not a coal train it is petcoke a petroleum product, I personally looked it up. I've tried to explain this but no one wants to let the truth get in the way of there cause.…
In 1999, I was involved in a project with the Port of Seattle that was expanding the shipping terminals in W. Seattle. The Seattle FD had a hold on the project until it could be demonstrated that there would be the ability to fully respond to an emergency when the city would be bisected by one of the monster trains leaving the Port and moving onto the mainline and exiting town. What was put in place was a network of sensors at the key crossings and the rail bridge that parallels the W. Seattle bridge which could alert the FD when the cut-offs occurred. This way the FD would be set up with adequate resources on either side of the line to handle any situation during the fifteen minute to half hour time of cut-off. The one "perfect storm" scenario that was most discussed was a situation where a playoff game was letting out at either stadium during a work day, rush hour traffic, and then one of these beasts moving into the mix. Not a pretty sight, eh? The potential of hyper increased rail traffic was never considered, and I hope that SFD's operational readiness has been updated to accommodate the future blockades to be imposed upon the city should this go through. With the Viaduct going away and the upcoming craziness with the Tunnel, I want to see what the contingency plan is for mobility through the city before this is put to a vote.
Until and unless Goldy becomes king of the world this will and should happen. If Goldy wants to stop this he can go China and protest each new coal fired power plant that appears the rate of 1000MW per month (for reference the only coal plant remaining in WA is 600MW plant in Centralia). If China's coal isn't low-sulfur coal from the Powder River in Wyoming it will be high polluting coal from a other countries. Something even the Stranger can fix.
Allowing the shipment of up to 54 million tons of coal annually to China for burning and contributing to an increase in global warming is a giant mistake. We need an energy policy that will assist China in the development of natural gas for energy needs, because it generates one third less carbon emissions. Coal trains bad for local health and the Earth's ability to sustain life.

I have a job I quite enjoy, and think that this scheme is a travesty, thank you very much.

2 hours of additional train-created traffic delays is gonna fuck with a lot more jobs in Seattle than this boondoggle is ever gonna create in Bellingham, which is why the poster has it wrong @46 (at least from a Seattleite's perspective) as to why this "should" happen.

No, it shouldn't.

Is there anything that can be added to coal to mess it up? If trains are rolling through daily with uncovered loads, organize a few saboteurs to toss in a chemical to ruin the coal every day and see what happens.
Let your electric rate go up 4X, build more highways so you can sit in traffic 5 X as much...where we you when they were building all the interstates? Get a life dude, the railroads are the more efficient forms of transportation in the world, get a life and stop complaining about things you cant do anything about. Had the same problem on my railroad and once the people found out there was nothing they could do about it they quieted down and nothing has changed, the trains run and nobody has said nothing about them. You cant stop a truck running down the highway and you cant stop a train running down its tracks.
I believe that BNSF is now considering a barge transfer 200 miles inland on the Columbia River, which will in turn transfer to larger ships once reaching the coast. The logistics of the issue are not settled, but given the already heavy intermodal traffic along the Puget Sound Corridor, I'm holding my tongue about the traffic concerns for now- I trust BNSF enough to not clog their own arteries.

But on the larger issue at hand: China's thirst for energy, our gigantic trade deficit with them, and the lowering cost of natural gas domestically virtually gurantees this coal getting to the far east in one way or another. While we know of the environmental travesty Coal power causes, we often forget that we are some of the lucky few who have the luxury of a choice in the matter. China is far from fully developed, and until they have a populous with the capital, and therefore the choice, to demand cleaner and less harmful forms of energy, that country will be burning coal, and anything else that's cheap to provide power. We did the same awful thing-- to attempt to deny them of doing it would provoke accusations of provincial hypocrisy.
I know I'm coming in late on this article, but it's the first 'coal' article that comes up on slog search..
Coal has been the number one source of energy in the states for quite some time and it seems that since it is DECLINING in popularity that a resourceful company would look for someone else to buy their product..hello China.
Since the production is waning and small mining towns suffer job loss and cannot immediately harness some other PRIMARY energy resource, why do Seattle-ites need to bitch about traffic? Any person who drives in downtown Seattle does not have immediate rights over any other form of transportation, or their right to travel.You want to know how to fix traffic? Stop driving. Coal employs hard working people, who care both about their environment and health. ANYONE who has ever been to Wyoming knows, they care about their land. Coal dust from cars is NOT a REAL issue. How long has coal been transported and how many cases of disease/death/infection has it contributed to? Coal came out of the earth, and won't harm anybody..until it is burned. Powder River Basin coal is the 'safest/cleanest burning' in the world. I put quotes because we all know its just less harmful. Isn't there a company around here launching BIGGER airplanes expelling LARGE amounts of emissions high in the atmosphere? DAILY?!
Coal needs to be replaced, but it takes time and common sense. Let them pass for 20-30 years and watch a dying industry maintain as much as it can rather than regulating an entire state's industry to death.