Is Washington’s railway system congested? Yes and no.

Would it become congested if 100 million tons of coal per year were moving along the rails to Washington ports? Almost certainly.

To understand the basics of rail congestion in Washington, take a look at this map showing the state’s main railway lines color coded by their level of congestion.

This map comes from the “Statewide Rail Capacity and Systems Need Study” conducted in 2006 by Cambridge Systematics for the Washington State Transportation Commission. It’s the most recent and comprehensive analysis of the state’s rail system.

Washington has a single north-south railway “backbone” on the west side of the mountains, running from the Canadian border to Vancouver, Washington. The green colors indicate where it is operating below its “practical capacity,” but the red colorations indicate bottlenecks and other congestion hot spots, which occur up and down the line. (Please see the “notes” section at the end of this post for an explanation of terms like “practical capacity.”)

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  • Connecting Western Washington to points east, there are three routes across the Cascade Mountains: the northernmost route traverses Stevens Pass. It’s colored red because it is already operating above its practical capacity. The central route, which crosses Stampede Pass, is green because it operates below its practical capacity. The third route, which makes its way along the Columbia River through the Gorge is yellow because it is approaching its practical capacity.

    Note that the map shows train volumes in excess of practical capacity on stretches of the corridor between Everett and Bellingham. In particular, the section between Everett and Burlington, which has a 24 train practical capacity, was already serving an average of 28 trains per day in 2006 when this map was produced. Although the I-5 rail corridor line has excess capacity on some stretches, it also has a number of bottlenecks where rail traffic slows for entry and exit to ports and terminals, which delay both freight and passenger service.

    What’s more, congestion is becoming a problem on the east-west rail corridors too. According to the study, the Everett-Spokane line over Stevens Pass was at about 123 percent of practical capacity in 2006 and is “nearing its maximum capacity.” On average, 27 trains per day run over that route, though it can realistically handle just 22 without risking meaningful congestion and delays for rail users.

    If Stevens Pass is so congested, why don’t freight trains use the Stampede Pass route? Although that route, called the Auburn-Pasco line, does have spare capacity, the route is not well-suited to many types of freight. For one, trains must enter a tunnel at Stampede Pass that does not accommodate high-value double-stack intermodal train cars. (In fact, the Cambridge Systematics study authors claim that BNSF has been routing more intermodal trains south to Vancouver, Washington and along the Columbia as an alternative to the Stevens route.) Plus, Stampede Pass is steep, likely rendering it cost prohibitive for heavier cargoes, at least at their current prices. The study authors note that, “grades over Stampede Pass also make it difficult to haul heavy-loaded unit grain trains along this line.” And if grain trains are too heavy, then it is unlikely that the even heavier loaded coal trains could be economically hauled over Stampede Pass.

    So if Stevens Pass is way over its practical capacity and Stampede Pass doesn’t provide an alternative, that leaves the Columbia Gorge as the only viable route for Powder River Basin coal heading for Washington’s ports. The problem is, analysts project that route will soon be nearing its capacity too – and that assumes only seven million tons of coal shipped in the state in 2015. (Seven million tons is roughly enough for the Centralia power plant, plus a little extra.) In reality, coal companies are hoping to ship 100 million tons or more from Washington ports. To the best of our understanding, nearly all the loaded trains would have to run through the Columbia Gorge, though returning empty trains may be able to use other routes, such as Stampede Pass.

    Adding just 10 coal trains per day to BNSF’s rail line in the Gorge would exceed that route’s practical capacity.  Yet the coal export proposals would require many more trains than that.

    According to Craig Cole, a consultant for a proposed terminal project near Bellingham, a 54 million ton “bulk commodity” terminal with 48 million tons of coal would add 18 roundtrip trains per day to the state’s system by 2026. Ship more than 100 million tons, a likely figure if Longview also builds a coal export terminal, and the state could be looking at somewhere around 30 roundtrip trains every day, on average. In other words, the coal export proposals are calling for so much new rail traffic that coal trains could cripple Washington’s rail capacity in key corridors.

    According to the Cambridge Systematics study:

    The I-5 corridor rail line… is subject to frequent stoppages when trains tie up the mainline to enter and exit the many ports, terminals, and industrial yards along the corridor. Some half dozen sections are chronic choke points, causing delays that ripple across the entire Washington State and Pacific Northwest rail system. (p30)

    In other words, even in 2006 the I-5 corridor rail line was suffering from isolated but chronic congestion. There is a shortage of rail yard capacity all along that corridor, amplified by station configuration problems at Longview and Centralia, creating bottlenecks. Although the I-5 corridor line had significant excess capacity in some stretches, there are bridge and tunnel restrictions that create choke points to the south ofTacoma, as well as to the north and south of Everett.

    The most problematic location, however, is one that would likely be affected by coal trains no matter whether coal is shipped to Bellingham, Longview, or some other Washington port: Vancouver, Washington. In fact, citing a 2002 study of rail congestion, the study authors note, “delay hours per train moving through the Portland/Vancouver area are greater than the delay hours for trains in the Chicago area, one of the nations most congested rail hubs.”

    There may be solutions to Washington’s rail congestion, at least partial ones, and we’ll explore some of them in a follow-up post. Unfortunately, these solutions can cause problems of their own. But more on that later.


    This post would not have been written without valuable research assistance from Dave Kershner.

    Notes: Railway analysis comes with its own peculiar jargon. The Cambridge Systematics report defines “practical capacity” as about 60  percent of a line’s “theoretical maximum capacity,” though other technical analyses use other benchmarks, such as 50 percent. Practical capacity is less than the theoretical maximum capacity because of capacity lost to maintenance, weather delays, equipment failures, human decisions, and other factors. It is essentially the capacity at which trains do not experience significant delays or operational problems. Beyond that level, service reliability deteriorates quickly.