As I’ve been researching coal exports, I’ve stumbled upon the subculture of “railfans“—people who obsessively watch, and film, trains. (If that sounds silly, I defy you to spend a couple minutes listening to this one. It’s hypnotic, right?) There’s something mesmerizing about these things, particularly the “unit trains” that carry only a single commodity, such as coal, usually in identical railcars.

Here’s a good one taken in Seattle:


Okay, now shake off the cobwebs for a moment because there’s some information here too. These YouTube videos provide confirmation of what Peabody Energy has said to investors: that coal is already being shipped by rail from the Powder River Basin via the Columbia River Gorge and then north to Puget Sound and along the water all the way to the Westshore Terminal at Roberts Bank, British Columbia.

That’s almost certainly the route that Peabody would use to move its hoped-for 24 million tons of coal (or is it more?) to the planned Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point, which is just a few miles south of Roberts Bank. In other words—and this is the point—building coal export terminals could mean moving large quantities of coal through virtually every populous community in western Washington.

  • Our work is made possible by the generosity of people like you!

    Thanks to Matt Leber for supporting a sustainable Northwest.

  • Given that typical coal trains are generally somewhere in the neighborhood of 8,000 feet long, and that these trains take roughly 4 minutes to pass by, they appear to traveling in the range of 20 to 25 miles per hour.

    A 4 minute crossing delay may not sound like much, but it could add up. Here’s the math. Assuming that a rail car carries 110 tons of coal and that a train is 125 cars long, shipping 24 million tons of coal would mean running about 1,750 trains per year. That’s an average of 5 loaded trains a day, plus 5 returning empty trains. Together, those 10 trains would result in around 40 minutes of street obstruction per day (not counting the additional time for crossing signals to sound and seal off a road from the traffic). That’s roughly 240 hours per year or, in aggregate, 10 full days of street blockage per year.

    Multiply that by every community the trains pass through—and every street they impede between Vancouver, Washington and Bellingham—and you could be talking about a significant impact on the region. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, really, because trains often travel much slower in urbanized areas, and congestion effects can ripple out quickly at the wrong times of day.

    And now, just in case you’re bored—maybe stuck at a rail crossing — here’s a railfan video of a coal train in Edmonds, running right along Puget Sound: