Saturday, March 10, 2012

Coal Port News: A 2% Solution to Heavy Rail Traffic and At-Grade Railroad Crossings

“Andersen, the BNSF spokesman, said two towns worth studying were Galesburg, Ill., and Olathe, Kan., both of which had heavy rail traffic and many at-grade railroad crossings. Those cities came up with solutions that included underpasses, overpasses, some crossing closures and the establishment of quiet zones.”

“Conference looks at impact of coal trains on downtown Billings,” Ed Kemmick, Billings Gazette, March 10, 2012.
Some of those solutions, from Galesburg, Illinois:

“Not really wanting to be back at work, I decided starting a new hobby would be a good idea while I waited for the second train to pass. It takes a while to master calligraphy, but I had plenty of time to make a good start. . .
I know, from long experience, to have a book with me so I have something to read while I wait. Most trains pass by faster than it seems if you simply sit and stare. I’m lucky if I can read more than five or six pages of a book before it’s time to put it away and resume driving.”

“Like the railroad, dislike delays,”  John R. Pulliam, Galesburg Register-Mail,January 29, 2012.

Billings, Montana is holding a conference this weekend, examining the impact of coal-train traffic on its downtown. This is a topic of more-than-passing interest to Bellingham, of course, because coal train traffic will come right on through our downtown if the Gateway Pacific coal terminal is approved.

With scoping, or at least pre-scoping, for the coal terminal project coming up on March 20, it seems like as good a time as any to think about how the impacts from coal trains can be mitigated.

And so, when I read that BNSF – the same rail company that wants to run coal trains through Bellingham – said to look at Galesburg, Illinois and Olanthe, Kansas for solutions, I did as I was told.   

Not knowing a thing about either place, I picked Galesburg, Illinois and spent a few minutes on Google to find out about the solutions that it offered.

I learned a lot.   What a fascinating place. And now I know what BNSF means by “solutions.” 

 “Galesburg, with a population of about 31,000, is a city of interesting past personalities,” 
 I learned.  “It gave us Carl Sandburg, the author; Charles Walgreen, who founded the drug store empire; and George Ferris, who invented the Ferris wheel.”  
That ever-useful research source Wikipedia helpfully pointed out that “According to legend, it was in Galesburg, at the Gaity Theatre in 1914, where the four Marx Brothers (Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and Gummo) first received their nicknames.”

More to the point, Wikipedia also summarized Galeburg’s relationship to BNSF:

Throughout much of its history, Galesburg has been inextricably tied to the railroad industry. . .   

In the late 19th century, when the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway connected its service through to Chicago, it also laid track through Galesburg, making this city one of relatively few of its size to be served by multiple railroads and even fewer to have multiple railroad depots. . . A series of mergers eventually united both lines under the ownership of BNSF Railway, carrying an average of seven trains per hour between them. As of the closing of the Maytag plant in fall of 2004, BNSF is once again the largest private employer in Galesburg.

So.  Seven trains per hour, in a town that is beholden for employment to BNSF.  That sounds like the optimal formula for a story of good railroad-town relations.  I expected to read about the fruits of reciprocal loyalty, resulting in a template for the mitigation of impacts that we could hope for in Bellingham throughout the state.

What I learned was a little bit disheartening.

From what I can tell, BNSF is stepping up to pay for somewhere around 2% of the cost of mitigating the impacts of rail traffic on Galesburg.  If that’s the solution that BNSF is touting, we’re talking about a pretty massive public subsidy for the export of our coal to China.  And a lot of impacts that simply won't be mitigated.

Here’s what I found, based on letting my fingers do the walking around the internet.  If anybody knows better, do chime in.

Over the decades, Galesburg and the railroads have struggled over how to protect the town from the effects of railroads.  According to a local historian (“Railroad wants crossings closed; city wants bridges,” Tom Wilson, Galesburg Register-Mail, May 21, 2011 ),

The definition of a dilemma is “a problem that seems to defy a satisfactory solution between two disputing parties.” A case could be built that the railroad and the citizens of Galesburg have long faced such a situation over the operation of local railroad crossings.

In the 1970s, the railroad (Atcheson, Topka and Santa Fe, at that time) didn’t want to pay to maintain at-grade crossings, so it told the city to close six or seven crossings.  One Alderman complained “The Santa Fe wants to sock it to us. They want to destroy my ward. I feel the city should not agree to close one single crossing,” and demanded that the railroad should pay for a bridge crossing.  The railroad refused.  Eventually, the city was forced to close two crossings, but it did get a railroad bridge:

Following several public hearings the [Illinois Commerce Commssion] granted Galesburg a petition to construct a bridge over Farnham Street at an estimated cost of $415,000. Of that amount, $187,333 would come from state grade crossing protection fund, $35,000 from the railroad and $192,667 from Galesburg.

So the railroad was on the hook for about 8% of the cost of the bridge, the little city paid 46% (and lost two crossings), and taxpayers in general – including the state – picked up 92% of the cost.

As far as I can tell, that was the high water mark for railroad contributions to mitigation in Galesburg.
Fast-forward to 2010.  Grade crossing mitigation and two railroad overpasses are funded for Galesburg. 

·        The federal Department of Transportation set aside almost $3 million ($2,922,000, to be exact) for Galesburg.  This was from a budget category that didn’t carry forward past 2010, so it looks like one-time stimulus funds.  See for yourself.  

·         And the state of Illinois created jobs in Galesburg, too:

"As part of the state of Illinois’ capital construction bill, Illinois Jobs Now!, the city of Galesburg received $33.5 million toward the construction of two railroad overpasses on West Main (U.S. 150) and Seminary streets."

OK, so far, taxpayers are paying for about $36.5 million to reduce the impacts of train traffic on Galesburg.  What about BNSF’s share?

Well, that came up during a candidates’ forum in Galesburg in 2011.  It seems that the city wants to implement “quiet zones” to reduce the noise from train whistles.  Candidates seemed to agree that the railroad should pay. 

How much was the railroad planning to pay?

“BNSF has promised to commit $735,000 of the roughly $2.5 million cost to close crossings and implement the quiet zones. The Illinois Commerce Commission has promised a further $550,000, while the Illinois Department of Transportation has committed $60,000, leaving the city to cover the remaining cost of about $1 million.”  

"Candidates sound off on railroad crossings,"  Eric Timmons, Galesburg Register-Mail, March 31, 2011.

Now, maybe BNSF is a secret Santa, and its largesse is hidden from the casual Googler.  But BNSF said to look at Galesburg, and I did, and here’s what I found:

Taxpayers:  $38,032,000
BNSF:        $     735,000

BNSF appears to be chipping in less than 2% of the cost of mitigation.

In the case of Bellingham, that means that, once the State of Washington has set aside many millions of dollars for overpasses, and the federal government has given us a stimulus package of a few more million, we too can have the kind of “solutions” that BNSF promotes for train traffic.  And BNSF itself just might chip in a few pennies to seal the deal.

A more likely mitigation measure:  calligraphy lessons, so we use our time gainfully while we wait for the trains to go by.

Looking on the bright side, if we all take books with us whenever we drive around Bellingham, perhaps Village Books will benefit. 

And only a nay-sayer would worry about whether patients being transported in ambulances will benefit from long culture breaks at the railroad crossings. 


  1. I am looking forward to reading "Melious on Planning Policy Analysis" on my iPad!

    1. An excellent suggestion to while away the time at level crossings!

  2. Will you be writing "Melious on Planning" using your new calligraphy skills?

  3. Given my lack of artistic skills, I'm several coal trains away from being able to do that. But it's always good to have a goal.

  4. I sometimes wonder why people built towns around the railroad in the first place....

    1. As they say in toxicology, the dose makes the poison.

      I live next to a household with a dog. This does not mean that I would have no right to ask for reasonable protection of the quiet enjoyment of my property if my neighbor decided to accommodate 100 dogs.

    2. Fine question, Anonymous. Of course, Bellingham (Whatcom, New Whatcom, Fairhaven, Fort Bellingham, whatever) was here before the railroad, so not sure it matters here for this discussion, what with being established by folks coming in by ship and all as a seaport. The rail came later.

      In the discussions of rail and subsidies, I think it's important to remember we're here in large part because of the Salish Sea and the ecological services it provides in finfish, shellfish, fertilizer (i.e. salmon), and way of life. The threat of massive cargo vessels with terrible safety records and vast volumes of ballast water is very real, as is the increased threat of oil spill.

    3. Great piece, Jean. May I add a suggestion. BNSF hasn't published this solution but I just know it's in the minds of railroad executives: All Bellingham drivers will learn to play the ukelele and buy a chord book. This reduces the waiting time by an average of two choruses of " Railroad Blues" and 24 bars of "Mr. Peabody's Coal Train," (AKA "Muhlenberg County")." Once the coal train has passed, if it ever does, drivers should avoid the complex chord changes of "Black Lung Boogie" while driving at speeds above 25 mph.

  5. This was terrific Jean. It really shows how it could play out in town after town after town...

    1. What's interesting, I think, is that BNSF singled out Galesburg as a best-case scenario. If this is one of the two best solutions in the country, other communities might not have a lot to hope for.

  6. Good research again. Thanks, Jean.

    There are a lot of condos along the tracks for sale right now. Some good deals -- if you don't mind train noise.

  7. Railroad corporations have repeatedly shown themselves to be notoriously poor community partners. My former community spent years trying to negotiate in order to locate a bicycle path parallel to the railroad tracks which completely divided the community. As with Bellingham, the community predated the railroad. In many cases the railroad’s location resulted in the need to walk, bike or drive more than a mile out of your way to get to what was essentially across the tracks. The railroad had “negotiated” with the town leaders in the past and obliterated crossings for people in the name of efficiency for the railroad. Decades later, the community was saddled with paying for a pedestrian overpass in the same location. In order to reduce trespass, the railroad is requiring the community to install fencing between the bicycle path and the railroad even though the area is already utilized by several hundred pedestrians/bicyclists daily (due to the proximity of a university).

    1. Perhaps Get Whatcom Planning should start a new competition: "Does anybody have a story about negotiating with a railroad that led to a happy ending for anybody except the railroad?" I haven't heard one yet.

  8. One wonders what the economic impact of a single coal train travelling from Wyoming to Bellingham would be in terms of delay in all of the communities and counties through which these trains would pass.

    1. I wonder what the economic impact of the grain we import from other communities for our farmers to use for feed is in terms of delay in all of the communities and counties through which the trains already pass?

    2. Good question. How many mile and a half long trains pull into Ferndale and block traffic at each of those crossings for 15 minutes each day delivering all that grain?

  9. How many of the current coal trains do? Does it really matter what they are hauling? The answer to your question is that the current grain, potash, and coal trains that go through here have the same effects and none of them hold things up for 15 minutes at a time.

  10. Hi Anonymous,

    Nine additional full, nine additional empty, mile and a half long trains would be needed to haul the coal to GPT at buildout. When you add that many trains to current train traffic, it's hard to see how it could have "the same effects" as current train traffic.

    Before you suggest that the coal trains will go through no matter what, please read this:

    If you have substantive knowledge to add to the information in that blog, I'd be happy to hear it.