The Pacific Northwest rail system is already nearing capacity, and more coal and oil traffic will increase the impact on agricultural commodities, a transportation consultant says.
The northern tier of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway is having “the worst service meltdown in 20 years,” Terry Whiteside, principal for Whiteside and Associates in Billings, Mont., said during a coal rail traffic briefing at the Gonzaga University School of Law in Spokane.
“Every commodity is having trouble moving,” Whiteside said. “For the very first time in many, many years, we’re facing a situation where the 2013-2014 crop will not get moved before the 2014-2015 crop hits the bin.”
Such a situation will negatively affect prices, Whiteside said. The U.S. wheat industry has spent decades building a reputation for reliable wheat supplies, he said.
“We’re in serious danger right now of losing that reputation,” he said.
It’s only a preview of difficulties that will arise in the next five to 10 years with increased coal and oil traffic, Whiteside said.
Whiteside estimates that the railroad will add 80 million to 100 million tons of coal traffic in 2018-2023 to the existing 39 million to 40 million tons of grain moving annually through the system.
“You add 100 million or 50 million, and we’re in trouble, because we’re at capacity now,” Whiteside said.
“The Funnel,” the 78-mile track from Sandpoint, Idaho, to Spokane, and a 25-mile line between Huntley, Mont., and Mossman, Mont., would be bottlenecks in the system, Whiteside said.
“Eastern Washington is an agricultural hub, and we have capacity on our rail lines of 78 trains a day,” said Ben Stuckart, president of Spokane City Council. The lines are full with agricultural products during the peak seasons, he said.
“What happens when by 2020, we’re going to have at least 45 coal trains and 22 crude oil trains?” Stuckart asked. “Oil and coal trump agricultural products. How does it get to market? It’s a huge concern for our local economy.”
Dave Koch leases his farmland south of Spokane. He’s concerned about getting product to market, noting that an alternate option to transport product to Lewiston, Idaho, or Clarkston, Wash., or Central Ferry, Wash., instead of facilities in Rockford, Wash., or Freeman, Wash., didn’t prove practical.
“It didn’t save us money and it kind of impacted our operation because the trucks weren’t where they needed to be,” he said.
If the price of the wheat decreases, the cost of shipping doesn’t, Koch noted.
Koch’s also worried about receiving necessary items for production, such as fertilizers, seed treatments and other chemicals.
Whiteside published his “Heavy Traffic Still Ahead” report in February, in hopes of initiating conversations to get communities and stakeholders involved to address the upcoming rail traffic growth.
Whiteside advised farm groups work to educate decision makers about the situation.