Rail transport in Oregon may be significantly affected by new coal, oil, and LNG trains, creating bottlenecks and safety issues. Whether the Northwest’s bread and butter – the export of grain and wood products – will be sidelined by new money in oil and gas is an open question.
According to the Washington State Ecology Report, released Oct 1, 2014 (pdf), there has been an “unprecedented increase in the transportation of crude oil by rail from virtually none in 2011 to 714 million gallons in 2013″. That amount could reach 2.87 billion gallons by the end of 2014 or in 2015. The report also states there are nearly 3 million Washington residents who live on or near crude rail routes.
The Bakken Oil Boom is expected to increase train traffic along the Columbia River and lead to congestion and safety issues along the route, especially in cities like Vancouver, Longview, Portland, and the Seattle area.
Rail traffic in the Portland/Vancouver region is already among the most congested in the nation. Grain, commodities and containers currently keep BNSF and UP near capacity.
The increased use of trains to ship oil has caused significantly more delays on Amtrak passenger trains, reports the NY Times. The Empire Builder line that goes between Portland and Chicago is now late 70 percent of the time, typically by three to five hours, and revenues from that line have dropped 18 percent from last year, the newspaper reported.
Activists are providing leadership and awareness. The Climate Action Coalition, including activists from Columbia River Keepers, Portland Rising Tide, Portland 350.org, Vancouver Action Network, the Universalist Unitarian Church and others are demonstrating what needs to be done.
Apparently, the main concern of the Ports of Portland, Vancouver and Longview is not public safety — or even fiduciary responsibility. Never mind the environment. Consider the loss of the regional container business. The lack of train capacity. The closed door agreements. Costly and speculative coal and oil terminals. The danger to health and safety.
Currently, about 75 trains move through Vancouver, Washington daily. Most are traveling north, south and east on BNSF and Union Pacific mainlines. They’re carrying a variety of cargoes, including those considered hazardous such as gasoline, diesel, crude oil and various chemicals. As common carriers, railroads are required under federal law to transport these products. BNSF’s main line, East of Vancouver, serves an average of 35 to 40 trains a day.
The proposed oil and gas terminals could add 25-50 new unit trains — daily. Trains also have to return the empties, effectively doubling traffic.
Do the math — If 120 unit trains utilize the roadbed every 24 hours, that would require 5 trains each hour — night and day. Gridlock appears inevitable. Every Port can’t deliver their own pet projects because the rail capacity isn’t there. What impact that will have on grain and other commodities remains to be seen. A typical fall/winter/spring rock slide can close a BNSF line some 48 hours.
A unit train, where all 100-120 cars are shipped from the same origin to the same destination, can carry about 60,000-90,000 barrels of oil. Each car can carry 30,000 gallons of crude. Coal is measured in tonnage. The average size hopper or gondola on a unit train car can carry 100 to 110 tons of coal per car, or about 10,000 net tons per unit train.
Coal terminal proposals
- Bellingham WA (Cherry Point/Peabody Coal) – 48 million tons/yr. About 9 full unit trains a day. That’s 18, mile-long trains daily (full + empty).
- Longview WA (Amber Energy/Arch Coal) – 44 million tons/y. Eight unit trains would bring the coal into Longview daily. That’s 16 mile-long trains daily.
- Port Westward OR (Amber Energy) – 9 million tons/yr, 4 trains daily to Boardman, then by barge to Port Westward (zero trains along the lower Columbia).
- Total coal train traffic: 38 trips daily
Oil terminal proposals
- Savage and Tesoro Corp. want to handle as much as 380,000 barrels of crude oil per day, hauled by train from the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota. If the Port of Vancouver’s proposed oil export terminal is approved, an additional 5 trains, each more than a mile long, will run through Vancouver daily (10 trips total).
- Global Partners, currently operating an oil export facility in Port Westward WA is now seeking a permit to rebuild a larger dock to export more oil. Currently it is handling 28,000 barrels of crude oil daily — only 8 percent as much as the proposed Vancouver dock – but plans to increase the volume to about one train a day (2 trips total).
- Total oil train traffic: 12 trips daily
Liquified Natural Gas proposals
- Haven Energy would ship propane and butane in pressurized rail cars from North Dakota to Washington and the Port of Longview. The terminal would be capable of handling 47,000 barrels of liquefied gases per day, which would mean one train delivery every day and a half and three ships per month. The Longview LNG terminal would require a little less than one train daily (total 1.5 trips daily).
- Pembina Pipeline Corp. of Calgary hopes to build a $500 million rail-served propane export terminal in the Rivergate Industrial District, the Port of Portland said in early September 2014. Pressurized rail cars from North Dakota would bring the natural gas to Port of Portland’s Terminal 6 for export. Upon completion, the propane export facility would receive approximately 37,000 barrels of propane per day. That’s about half a unit train, daily.
If the above estimates are correct, the 3 coal terminals (38 trips daily), the 2 oil terminals (12 trips daily), and the Longview/Haven/Pembina propane terminals (2 trips daily), would total more than 50 trains/daily (25 full/25 empty). Most of these trains would travel down the Columbia River.
Amtrak service will suffer and decline. There’s no way Amtrak schedules could be met. Freight has priority.
Pudget Sound Shipments through The Gorge
Ten railroad oil terminals are planned for Washington state, plus one in Port Westward Oregon, bringing in crude oil from Bakken oil shale fields in the Dakotas. The rail terminals will together have a capacity of approximately 726,000 barrels a day, about the same as a large oceangoing tanker or the daily output of the Keystone XL pipeline, proposed for the mid-west. The Alaska pipeline is bringing about 295,000 barrels a day to Washington’s five refineries.
Washington’s refineries include two in Anacortes, two in Ferndale near Bellingham, and one in Tacoma. In addition, three projects are planned at Hoquiam. The Tesoro refinery in Anacortes (which had an accident in April 2010), has enough capacity to handle 50,000 barrels a day.
Dozens of oil and coal trains will go through Vancouver daily — whether or not any terminals are built in Vancouver WA, Longview WA or Port Westward OR, argues the Port of Vancouver.
So in addition to 25-50 NEW unit trains daily feeding terminals along the Columbia, there will be additional rail traffic coming through the Gorge and Vancouver that are expected to feed the refineries and terminals in Pudget Sound.
Barge traffic has priority over rail traffic, especially when vessels are headed down river. That’s because a tug pushing a barge must travel faster than the current to maintain control. Bridge operators on the BNSF line must open the Columbia bridge when barges are still miles away. Barges carry gas and oil upriver and grain downriver and return the empties. They (and sailboats) typically require a dozen or more BNSF Columbia bridge openings daily. [I live on the Columbia River, 1 mile from both the I-5 bridge and the BNSF RR bridge, see: HaydenIslandInfo].
With more than a hundred unit trains expected on a daily basis, the area seems headed for rail/river grid-lock. Are there enough hours in the day to handle the projected increase in rail traffic? It’s hard to see how the logistics could work. Even if there’s never an accident, rail traffic seems destined to be backed up to North Dakota routinely.
Trains on the North side of the Gorge (primarily BNSF), generally use the Columbia River Railroad Bridge (1 mile West of the I-5 vehicular bridge) and the Willamette Railroad Bridge (Willbridge) where trains can continue downriver, on the Oregon side, towards Port Westward.
At the Willamette Bridge (Willbridge), BNSF and Union Pacific can then join with the Portland & Western Railroad to serve Port Westward, near Clatskanie Oregon.
Union Pacific trains use the South side of the Columbia River, on the Oregon side. Those trains come out through Sullivan’s Gulch, beneath the Lloyd Center, and head towards the Steel bridge in downtown Portland.
This map shows that trains on the Oregon side of the Gorge MUST cross Naito Parkway if they are headed West, down river to Port Westward. Currently most Oregon-bound trains don’t cross the Steel bridge (and Naito Parkway). That’s because most trains currently turn North towards Rivergate terminals 4, 5 and 6, or South, towards California, before they cross the Steel bridge and block busy Naito Parkway.
More than a quarter of all U.S. grain exports move through nine grain terminals on the Columbia River and Puget Sound. But farmers grain shipments have been held up by a vast new movement of oil by rail, leading to millions of dollars in agricultural losses, reports the NY Times. The backlog is only going to get worse, farmers say.
The Northwest has nine grain shipping terminals, two on Puget Sound (at Seattle and Tacoma) and seven at ports along the Columbia River (one in Longview, two in Kalama, one in Vancouver and three in Portland).
Oil/Gas Train Safety
Trains hauling explosive crude oil are passing near schools and through towns in Oregon and Washington, past parks and playgrounds. The oil is transported under lighter state oversight than if it moved any other way.
Three railroads serving the Portland region refused to tell where they’re hauling crude oil locally. Up to 600,000 barrels of oil each month are shipped out of Port Westward near Clatskanie, Oregon. Savage and Tesoro Corp. plan to move as much as 380,000 barrels of crude through Vancouver, WA — every day. BNSF’s main line, East of Vancouver, serves an average of 35 to 40 trains a day.
Data was released in June 2014 show that showed 18 BNSF oil trains can roll through Clark County weekly. BNSF had previously only said it ran one to two Bakken oil trains daily in the Northwest. The information (pdf), highlights how prolific crude-by-rail has become. New oil (and coal) terminals in Vancouver and Longview will increase rail traffic significantly.
North Portland’s Rivergate Industrial District is Portland’s largest industrial park, but as the amount of exports such as grain and minerals going through the park climbs, so do traffic backups caused by trains, notes The Oregonian.
Amber Energy says not to worry — they will use barges, not trains from Boardman. Some people do not believe them. Amber Energy purposely misrepresented their Longview proposal. Critics wonder if Amber’s barge proposal for Port Westward could also be a railroad job.
Up the river, in Vancouver, Washington, Washington planners are developing a $200 million rail expansion plan to accommodate thousands of additional coal and oil cars.
Meanwhile, Longview’s Lewis and Clark Bridge is getting a rail improvement project of its own. Rail improvements would be funded by those who will benefit from it, say Port of Longview officials, including Millennium, the Port of Longview, Weyerhaeuser, Longview Fibre, local governments and other industries.
Eight, mile-long trains a day would deliver coal to Longview. Including round trips, 16 coal trains a day could stop traffic at Third Avenue, Oregon Way, California Way and Industrial Way.
The Oregon Transportation Commission will vote on two projects totalling $4 million, which industry would match with $7.6 million, to rebuild and expand berths for ocean-going ships at the Port of St. Helens in Columbia City. The third proposes $3 million, matched by $2.3 million from other sources, to separate railroad tracks from vehicle and pedestrian traffic on A Street in Rainier, Ore.
Critics say they simply will ease the much-debated movement of coal and oil through Oregon.
The Lac-Mégantic derailment was a wake-up call. It was caused when an unattended 74-car train carrying Bakken crude ran away and derailed. It exploded in the center of town, killing 47 people. This amateur video shows a cataclysmic inferno.
A new report and website by Oil Change International provides a comprehensive overview of the current oil-by-rail industry. According to the report, “Runaway Train: The Reckless Expansion of Crude By Rail in North America”, approximately one million barrels of oil per day are moved on 135 trains of 100 cars or more each day in America.
Along the Willamette River, in the industrial section of Portland, Arc Logistics Partners receives, stores, and delivers heavy and light petroleum products via Panamax sized vessels, railroad and truck loading rack. The 39-acre site has 84 tanks with a total storage capacity of 1,466,000 barrels. The Alon Willbridge refinery, an asphalt topping refinery, has a crude oil throughput capacity of 12,000 barrels per day.
The Oregon State Fire Marshal has begun posting reports from railroad companies about their shipments through the state, at www.oregon.gov/osp/SFM/Pages/SERC/CrudeOilReports.aspx.
The Blast Zone mapping tool is available at Blast-Zone.org. Type in an address and you can see if it’s near the red zone, a band within a half-mile of the rail line that might be evacuated if there’s an oil train derailment.
Rail traffic could soon increase dramatically with coal (to Longview and Pudget Sound), oil (to Port Westward OR and Vancouver WA) and LNG (to Longview and Portland). Many of the oil and coal trains will simply go down the Columbia and through Vancouver WA on the way to Pudget Sound. Soon, some 25 unit trains may be traveling to and from the terminals (50 trips daily).
An $8.9 million project to improve Rainier’s A Street, shared by oil trains would install curbs and improve crossings, allowing trains to speed up from 10 mph to 25 mph. But mprovements would allow the number of mile-long oil trains passing through Rainier to increase from 24 monthly to 38, helping expansion plans and profits for Global Partners oil export terminal.
There was no debate, no public hearing. Mile-long trains carrying volatile crude oil from North Dakota just showed up in communities including Rainier, Scappoose and St. Helens, reports The Oregonian.
“We didn’t know. No one knew,” Steven Massey, a Rainier city councilman, told the Oregonian.
Train Safety Modifications
The Lynchburg derailment (Instagram video), in April 2014, is only the latest in a string of catastrophic oil train explosions. The NTSB estimates that 69% of today’s tank car fleet has a high incidence of tank failure during accidents.
The Lynchburg derailment ignited oil on the surface of the river, sent flames and smoke hundreds of feet into the air, forced evacuations of downtown businesses and homes.
Global Partners said they will switch from DOT 111 tanker cars to the newer CPC-1232 tank cars, starting June 1, a safety step lauded by Gov. John Kitzhaber. They add a thicker, more puncture-resistant shell around the cars, extra protective head shields at both ends of the tank car, and additional protection for the top fittings.
The Association of American Railroads is pushing for tougher safety standards for tank cars than the current, voluntary standards agreed to by industry in 2011, reports the Associated Press. Railroads, though, typically don’t own or lease tank cars and so wouldn’t have to buy new cars or retrofit existing ones.
The American Petroleum Institute, however, says Bakken crude is no different from other light, sweet crude oils and doesn’t need special containers. The oil and ethanol industries that own the cars want to stick with the voluntary standards, also known as “1232” tank cars.
But Siteline says the New “Safer” Tank Cars Were Involved in Lynchburg, VA, Oil Train Fire. Federal regulators are currently considering whether half- or full-height shields should be required on all cars.
Each oil car has the owner’s name in a code called a “reporting mark”.” Just go to Mark Search, type in the letter code (which typically ends in X), and the owner is revealed. Warren Buffet’s Union Tank Car tank cars are labeled UTLX; GATX Corp’s are GATX; Trinity Industries are TILX; The CIT Group are CBTX and CIGX, notes Sightline.
You can tell an oil train because each tank car will display a red diamond-shaped placard with numbers 1267 identifying the load as crude oil. Other Class 3 Flammable Liquids include Diesel fuel (1202), Gasoline (1203), Petroleum oil (1270), Kerosene (1223), Methanol (1230), Shale oil (1288) and Liquified Petroleum Gas (1075). Here are the four digit UN codes sorted by number.
The railroads don’t want residents to know what hazardous materials pass though their community. But it is easy to point a video camera at a railroad and archive the streaming output 24/7 on Sensr.net for $10/month. Anyone could view the archive and count the trains. It’s not rocket science.
Automatic classification and counting of rail cars might be accomplished by running the camera through Elemental Technologies. Mobile apps like PhotoTime and FotoTiger for Facebook can automatically tag images today.
Phones and tablets equipped with Movidius visual processing chips will probably enable most anyone to parse out text and graphics printed on rail cars (and probably read boat registration numbers). My I-5 bridge webcam has a straight shot across the river at all the rail traffic headed to Vancouver.
According to Port of Vancouver’s CEO, about 75 trains currently move through Vancouver daily.
The new terminals for oil, coal and gas would appear to raise train traffic through Vancouver to around 125 trains a day.
Cain estimated the site along the north bank of the Columbia River could ultimately generate $844 million per year in economic activity. Columbia Waterfront proponents are in negotiations with restaurants, and could have plans for the first residential and office construction at the site soon, he said.
The rail line through the Columbia River Gorge doesn’t have to go over the mountains making it the much preferred route, explained BNSF spokeswoman Courtney Wallace.
Tesoro and Savage hope to build the Pacific Northwest’s largest crude-by-rail terminal in Vancouver, Washington, capable of unloading four trains and 360,000 barrels of oil daily. A DOT-111 tank car holds about 28,000 gallons, with 100 cars holding about 2,800,000 gallons which is equal to about 80,000 barrels of oil.
The Port of Vancouver says it would receive $45 million over ten years for the lease of land for the oil port. But critics say Vancouver’s lucrative $1.2 billion waterfront development could be killed in the process, with residential concern over safety and congestion.
U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., is demanding the oil industry eliminate older, unsafe tanker cars. At a Senate hearing on railroad safety in March, Cantwell pressed industry executives on when they will pull “DOT 111” cars off the rails in favor of newer, sturdier models.
Oil industry executives told Cantwell they hope to phase out 60 percent of the older cars by 2015 but couldn’t say when they’d all be off the rails.
Rainier, Oregon Mayor Jerry Cole said he trusts Global Parners, in Port Westard to operate safely. About a dozen trains with about 100 cars each currently come through downtown Rainier per month, 22 fewer than Global is allowed by its permit.
But the legality of some of those shipments remains under dispute, reports the Oregonian. Oregon state regulators said Global has violated its permits by moving 297 million gallons of oil to Port Westward between December 2012 and November 2013 when its permit allowed 50 million gallons.
The terminal’s new proposed air pollution permit would allow it to bring in 50 trains per month. That’s twice the number of trains it’s allowed to handle today. It can accept 24 trains a month and can increase that to 38 monthly trains if improvements are made to tracks running through downtown Rainier. Returning empties doubles the rail traffic.
Coal Train Congestion
BNSF is the largest transporter of low-sulfur coal in the world while Union Pacific in Oregon moves containers, primarily. Coal accounts for more than a quarter of BNSF’s revenues and 90 percent of the coal it hauls is from the Powder River Basin.
The Longview coal export facility backed by Millennium plans to haul at least 45 million tons of coal per year from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana to Longview, Washington. It would use Burlington Northern’s rail lines on the Washington side of the Columbia.
KING-5 covers The great train debate surrounding the expected increase in rail traffic to and from coal facilities at Cherry Point and Longview.