June 08, 2013

Coal Train Update

The passage of coal trains through Puget Sound is an extraordinarily bad idea, something I have blogged about in the past.   In this blog, I will provide an update on the issue and, using new information, review why local residents should oppose this problematic idea.

The coal train issue has gotten a lot of attention lately, including a recent legal suit by the Sierra Club and a panel discussion by Mayor McGinn and others.

So why are coal trains a bad idea?  The list is a long one.

1.  Traffic and economic impact.

Today there are 3-4 coal trains a day rolling through Seattle, Edmonds, and other Puget Sound cities/towns.  It is proposed that this would increase to 18.   According to a study commissioned by the city of Seattle this would cause ONE TO TWO HOURS additional stoppages at railway crossings.  The result will be a substantial increase in traffic in the Seattle and Edmond's waterfronts and reduced access to ferries.  A substantial loss of the productive time of drivers.  There was substantial opposition to the new basketball stadium based on increasing traffic causing problems for shipping companies, with suggestions of major economic impacts.  Shouldn't we be concerned about the economic implications of coal trains?

2.  Air Pollution (coal dust, combustion products, and diesel fumes)

First, it is clear that the train-inspired traffic jams will cause increased local pollution.  Then, some of the air pollution produced by burning the coal in Asia will come across the Pacific to raise the base-line air pollution levels in our region (UW Professor Dan Jaffe, among others, have documented this).  Increased number of trains, will contribute to an increase of diesel exhaust, which contains a wide collection of dangerous and carcinogenic components. 

And then there is coal dust.   I am going to be controversial right now and suggest that coal dust from trains is not a big problem here in Puget Sound.  First, I believe most of the coal dust will blow off near the mines in Wyoming and in the windy sections of the Columbia Gorge (bad for them, good for us).  Plus, the trains are moving relatively slow up Puget Sound, so less blows off.   And it seems like the coal companies are spraying some kind of surfactant on the surface of the coal to bind the top surface.    I have walked near the tra
cks along the Sound and have not seen much evidence of coal dust. 

3.  Global Warming

If you are worried about global warming and its effects globally and locally, coal trains are a bad idea.  The proposed export volumes are huge:  roughly 15% of the total coal usage of China.  We will be a participant and contributor to a significant increase in atmospheric CO2.   It is nice to drive our hybrids and use wind energy.  The coal trains will compensate (in a bad way) for all our sacrifices and investments.

4.  Slope Failures and Closed Railways

This winter we had a large number of slope failures along the tracks leading from Seattle to Everett.  That route was out for weeks, crippling Sounder service and train traffic.  Winter rains were clearly a major contributor, but there is some reason to expect that the vibrations from heavy coal trains are enhancing the slope failure problem.  A number of residents near the train tracks have sent me messages like this:

"I live three blocks from the tracks and I can feel my house vibrate when the coal trains pass."

There is a literature in geomorphology/geoengineering literature on vibrations contributing to slope failures.

An ancillary issue is if a slope failure could send a full coal train into the Sound, with substantial and negative environmental implications.

The UW Coal Train Study is Crowd Funded!

It is time to get hard numbers on the air pollution aspects of coal trains.  As mentioned several weeks ago, Professor Dan Jaffe proposed a study using sophisticated instrumentation to quantify the effluent and coal dust coming off the current coal train traffic.   This study was deemed too controversial to fund by local governments and so he went to crowd funding.   With the help of some publicity in the Seattle Times and the generosity of several of you, he was fully funded.  The measurement over Puget Sound will begin soon (locations will be kept secret!) and Dr. Jaffe is planning a follow-on experiment along the Columbia Gorge.


  1. KCTS9/EarthFix documentary on coal is Wednesday, June 19th at 7:30pm and 10pm.

  2. There is one additional factor not mentioned in this post. Yes, there is pollution from the diesel locomotives. But there is even worse pollution from the extra-foul "bunker oil" burned by the ships coming into port, generating electricity in port, and leaving port with all that additional coal. This asthmatic person has an especially high appreciation for breathing clean air.

  3. Cliff,
    Regardless of your stance (or any other anti-coal persons) you're going to have a tough time blocking interstate commerce. The railroads have been providing interstate commerce for a hundred + years and it is highly unlikely that it is going to stop any time soon. Plus it's regulated by the national government.
    So the trains are going to come regardless of what people think/believe. Either the coal (and other bulk commodities such as grain, potash, etc) will either be exported from a Washington State port, or a Canadian port.
    A delay of 5-10 minutes for each train is much better than seeing dump trucks travel up and down the I-5 Corridor full of coal (or other bulk commodities). There is a reason trains are used to ship bulk commodities. Can you imagine a 10,000 tons of coal(or grain, or potash) being moved by truck up the I-5 Corridor every day to replace a single train? 10,000 tons is approximately the average weight of the load (Loaded coal trains weight between 17,000- 18,000 tons loaded, about 8000-9000 tons empty) coal train. Trains have and will continue to be the more efficient form of bulk commodity transportation. So as long as interstate commerce exists, you'll see railroads.
    Trains per ton are much more fuel efficient that trucks any day. The trucking companies know this, and actually ship their trucks on trains...
    So if the bulk commodity is going to come what would you rather have? A train or a bunch of trucks to replace a single train...

    Regardless of what you think please remember that the railroad right of way is a privately owned property. Do not trespass while trying to obtain data for the study. The ROW is a dangerous and illegal place to be any time of the day.

  4. I am sorry Cliff, but I will have to disagree with you on this matter.

    First of all, there will be 9 loaded trains and 9 empty trains, for a total of 18 trains, excluding the existing 3-6 trains a day that run to Canada. These trains take 2-3 minutes on average to pass through a crossing at their max loaded speed of 45mph, empty trains can do 60mph, which is what the study did not factor.

    Another thing the study did not factor was which direction the empty trains will come. All of the loads will go via the Columbia River because it is the flattest route to go. The empties most likely will go via Stevens Pass or Stampede Pass.

    The trains will run a max of 125 cars due to the grades in Montana. The myth of running 150-200 car long trains that opposition likes to claim at times is simply not possible.

    Another thing that has not been discussed that coal is bad, yet the oil trains are booming with no opposition.

    Having been to the Powder River Basin where these trains originate, I have only seen Union Pacific trains that are destined for the Midwest not be treated. All of the Washington/Oregon bound trains get the treatment to reduce/eliminate dust from the trains.

    Lastly, the vibration from the coal trains is a moot point when there are heavier trains that run by the same location. There is another issue itself with the slopes along the Puget Sound and heavier trains are not to blame. The hillside is 150+ years old, looking to blame coal trains is pointless and meritless when coal trains have ran by this area for the last 50+ years.

    And finally - Why should the locations be secret? If there is nothing to hide, why not disclose the information unless they are going to falsify the information?

  5. Good luck on stopping interstate commerce that you don't agree with.

    Heck, I have bigger problems with manufacturing abroad and WalMart shoppers then I do with coal trains. But, that is for another time...

    Gotta go...there is a blue light special for slacks made in Bangladesh...

  6. Thanks Cliff. Living in Richmond Beach, I fully agree. I'd also agree if I lived on the moon!

    Sierra Club magazine just had a chilling expose on the impacts of coal. Here's their online site detailing the effects of "Dirty Coal."


  7. Brian Bundridge: Initially, 7,000 ft. long trains (approximately 125 cars per train) are expected, but the facilities are being planned to accommodate 8,500 ft. long coal trains (approximately 150 cars per train).

    You can confirm this fact in the GPT permit and project information document (PID) submitted by SSA/PIT and it states, "the Terminal is designed to accommodate unit trains up to 8,500 feet long within the project area."
    Also, in the PID under section 4.33 it states, "Initially, 7,000-foot-long trains are expected, and longer trains up to 8,500 feet long may service the Terminal ultimately."

  8. What these coal trains represent is a transparent complicity in Chinese industry's rampant disregard for environmental protection and conservation. If anything symbolizes that globally-criminal attitude, it's Beijing's coal-fired smog cap. If that's how they treat their own country, what do they care for the rest of the world? China's problems don't stay in China, and too much of our economy directly relies on their willingness to abuse the planet. Selling them coal, at the immediate expense of local quality of life and long-term expense of North Pacific air and water quality, is hugely symbolic of the fundamental disinterest of corporate industry in preserving or protecting anything. Big "Clean" Coal, your utter lack of conscience is showing.

  9. Res interstate commerce.

    As I understand it, this does not apply to permits for docks. Cities, counties, and states can and do control permitting processes at the docks.

    Opponents of these coal trains (I am one) need to avoid any demonizing of China. It is not productive, it is not fair (the western world got rich polluting the worlds air and are responsible for almost all of the past CO2, and it is not necessary.

  10. Cliff, with all due respect, could you write about the local weather a little more?

    I understand that you like to write about coal trains and math books and tornado avoidance to the exclusion of any discussion of weather for the better part of two weeks, but the primary reason you have an audience that listens to those topics is that you wrote about the weather. A little more weather would be a good thing.

    I'm starting to understand the KPLU decision more and more.

  11. @Bruce King,
    This is called "Cliff Mass Weather Blog" and it's his personal blog...he's under no obligation or restriction to ONLY talk about local weather or even weather at all if he'd rather share his thoughts on something else. I appreciate reading his insights into different subjects.

  12. getinformed said "Initially, 7,000 ft. long trains (approximately 125 cars per train) are expected, but the facilities are being planned to accommodate 8,500 ft."

    Get Informed: While the plans may call for a train length of 8500', I don't for see that happening from a railroad prospective.
    As a locomotive engineer running a 8500' train that would equate to about 21,000 tons would be a challenge. Getting that over a mountain grade (ie the Rockies) would be near impossible. The heaviest train I ever ran was 18,500 tons. It was a beast to handle on moderate grades. Not so mention at 21,00 ton trains would require substantial changes to the track, and locomotive requirements. The ideal train length has maxed out at 7500' or 120 cars. If the railroad found that it was more economical to run longer trains they would have a long time ago.
    While the terminal may handle a longer train, the railroad may not. The terminal wants to build extra capacity because you sometimes need extra room to move things around.
    Everyone keeps forgetting that the terminal proposed is a bulk commodity terminal. Coal is just one of a variety of products that can be shipped out.

  13. If you want to do something productive about coal, go see the movie Pandora's Promise which premiers this week. You can learn why even enviro-nuts are finally doing the math on wind and solar and learning that if you hate coal you have to love nuclear, Thorium nuclear that is. Read more at http://energyfromthorium.com and see the movie.

  14. Hey Cliff. I'd like to use this blog on the Oregon Sierra Club's website. coalfreeoregon.org

    I'll credit you and your blog for this! Let me know if you would not like me to use your blog.

  15. Lief..that is fine..my blogs are on the public domain..cliff

  16. Cliff,

    I do like your blog but I am going to second what Bruce King said. This is June- a key month for the battle between sun and clouds, when the tide start to turn. I am delighted that so far this June is fairly good (hope I don't jinx it) but could you tell us:

    How come the convergence zone does not seem to get any more T-storms than elsewhere in Western WA? I have lived in Gig Harbor and Seattle. Seems like we in Bothell get, if anything, less of them than the South Sound... One would predict that the convergence should enhance the convection enough to trigger some good ones.


  17. You are my guru for all things weather. Lots of camping and outdoor stuff scheduled for the next 4 months... What's the outlook Cliff.

  18. Opposing coal trains seems like an inefficient way to reduce China's emissions. Wouldn't it be more effective to increase export tariffs on fossil fuels, or some other direct measure?

    If Jaffe's study turns up substantial effects on air quality I could see opposing coal trains on those grounds, but if it's the export of coal itself that we need to block there are more effective ways that throttling local transportation.


Please make sure your comments are civil. Name calling and personal attacks are not appropriate.

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