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City of Seattle

November 5, 4:05 PM click here to comment > 7

Coal trains would significantly increase delays at railroad crossings

An increase in coal trains running through Seattle would increase delays at railroad crossings by between one and three hours per day by 2026, according to a Parametrix study commissioned by the Seattle Department of Transportation. These delays could increase police and fire response times for emergencies in the affected areas, particularly in SODO.

“This study suggests that 18 coal trains per day, each one more than a mile long, could significantly increase traffic delays between our waterfront and our maritime and industrial businesses,” said Mayor Mike McGinn. “The public and policymakers need to take a close look at these findings as we examine the proposal to export more coal.”

“This study raises serious concerns about the impact to public safety and our transportation network,” said Councilmember Mike O’Brien. “I will be sharing these findings with my colleagues and urging them to consider the impacts of coal trains on our city.”

A proposed coal export terminal at Cherry Point in Whatcom County could lead to as many as 18 coal trains per day traveling through Seattle, bringing coal mined in Wyoming to the terminal for export to markets in Asia. The Seattle Department of Transportation commissioned Parametrix to study the impact of these trains on traffic and public safety in Seattle.

The study found that daily gate down times at railroad crossing would increase with coal train operations. The increase is dependent on the length of train, how fast it is travelling, and how many daily trains are scheduled.

  • In 2015, the estimated additional daily gate down time for coal trains could be 31 to 83 minutes. This could represent an increase in daily gate down time of approximately 18% to 49% at Broad Street and 15% to 39% at both Holgate and Lander Street.
  • In 2026, the estimated additional daily gate down time for coal trains could be approximately 67 to 183 minutes. This could represent an increase in daily gate down of approximately 39% to 108% at Broad Street and 31% to 86% at Holgate and Lander Streets.

In turn, vehicles could be lined up for a longer period of time at railroad crossings. Depending on the time between gate closures, vehicle queues may not fully dissipate before the next gate closing, meaning some drivers would have to wait for multiple trains to pass before being able to cross to the other side of the tracks.

The study also examined impacts to public safety, finding that blockage from the proposed coal trains would impact emergency vehicle trips to and from the waterfront. Blocked train crossings affect response time for fire responses, technical rescue groups, hazardous materials responses, and emergency medical responses where rapid response times are especially important. Delays would not only affect local area responses, but could also affect the ability to send more safety resources from one area of the city to another as needed.

Another finding of the study was that in the past 10 years, trains of all kinds were directly involved in a total of four collisions at Broad Street, Wall Street, and Holgate Street. A total of 127 improper crossings were recorded within a 24-hour period at the Broad Street, South Holgate Street, and South Lander Street crossings alone involving vehicles, bicycles and/or pedestrians. Improper crossings occur when vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians cross the tracks when the red lights start to flash or the railroad gates were down. This type of behavior could increase with more delays and could increase the potential for train collisions with vehicles, pedestrians, or bicyclists, and blocking incidents.

A public hearing on coal trains will be hosted by the Washington Department of Ecology, the US Army Corps of Engineers, and Whatcom County at North Seattle Community College on November 13, from 4:00 pm to 7:00 pm.

Posted by: April Thomas


Comment from Mike Lazenby
Time November 6, 2012 at 3:05 pm

Coal shipments to China via trains thru Seattle is a no brainer!!! Any official that would allow it should be coal tarred & feathered for the environmental damages and not just the safety & congestion factors.

Comment from Ronda
Time November 6, 2012 at 4:11 pm

If I may make a suggestion to you for consideration. In the mid-west they had the same issues and what they did was build concrete ramps over the track crossings to prevent delays for police and ambulances. It really helps alot and it cut down on the time for everyone concerned especially ambulance drivers and police officers. I know it may cost quite a lot but in the long run it would help all those involved if they needed to cross the tracks in a hurry.

Pingback from The Reader – Get your ballots in today | Seattle, WA 98122
Time November 6, 2012 at 4:56 pm

[…] increase delays at railroad crossings An increase in coal trains running through Seattle would increase delays at railroad crossings by between one and three hours per day by 2026, according to a Parametrix study commissioned by the […]

Comment from Bridgeguy
Time November 13, 2012 at 6:37 am

No quibble with the conclusion of the article, but the premise appears to be wrong. The railroad is a privately owned common carrier of freight, whose purpose is to carry whatever is offered, and carry as much of it as possible in order to be profitable. It doesn’t matter whether the cargo is coal hoppers, oil tank cars, or boxcars full of widgets. It seems like this article is attempting to create negative public opinion about the normal functioning of the transportation system.
I understand the desire not to facilitate the use of coal, but this is the wrong way to go about it. Worse yet, if China is buying low sulfur coal from us to try to improve the air quality in their cities, we are inpeding their effort to curb sulfate pollution. Our zeal to reduce carbon dioxide is blinding us to the larger picture.
Attempting to impede legitimate interstate commerce this way is the mentality that brought us tree-spiking. It discredits people with genuinely good motives.

Comment from Vicki Baucom
Time November 30, 2012 at 8:52 am

There is a multitude of problems with this coal exportation plan: there is no local regulation of trains (federal control only) so the trains can park across the roadway as long as they wish while rail-traffic clears elsewhere – seriously impacting local traffic and emergency services; there is no local air-quality control of trains which spew the most dangerous form of ultrafine particulate pollution; it is railroad policy to leave train-engines running when parked from October to May because diesel engines are hard to start when it is cold; and we are sending a dirty power source downwind so it can blow right back here. The health impacts are huge and are missing from the discussion. See: My child was part of this 10-year USC lung health study and we lived in a growing “transportation hub.” The long-term cost in health and safety is not being discussed. It is not just asthma but also coronary health, birth defects, cancer and chemical sensitivity that result from poor air quality. Just say “no.”

Pingback from Is the Northwest a Coal Scrooge? | Seattle Globalist
Time December 10, 2012 at 9:39 am

[…] Council came out with a resolution against coal terminals in Washington and the Mayor sponsored a study demonstrating traffic delay and congestion. Citizen and non-profits have been equally adamant […]

Pingback from Increased Coal Traffic Through the Peninsula | No More Coal Through White Rock
Time July 29, 2013 at 1:01 pm

[…] impact Access to White Rock Beach, and Emergency Vehicle Access to Crescent Beach? According to a study conducted in Seattle on the impact of coal train traffic on emergency vehicle response times, […]