Saturday, July 30, 2011

Coal Terminal: Trains & Infrastructure

This quotation from the Internet is revealing; "....while railroads have always been conservative and “archaic” in their views they have also have had their reasons, to some degree, being that railroading in its very nature has nearly the highest cost of capital of any industry and relies on economies of scale to be profitable...."

What this doesn't say is that Railroads rely upon governments and 'others' -read you and me- to pay for infrastructure [like bridges & underpasses] that is not strictly needed for their own profit-making.
That would include little things like grade-separated crossings, multiple tracks for sharing, noise abatement, and active civic involvement when proposing projects that carry social & environmental impacts.
It also doesn't say that railroads are habitually opportunistic and secretive, both traits that help them gain competitive advantages.

Part of the "archaic" label has to do with the sense of entitlement granted railroads 200 years ago, when our nation was keen to enable westward migration and needed a way to haul to haul freight and people -in that order- to previously remote areas.
From inception, railroads abused their privileges, often engaging in land promotion swindles and all manner of chicanery to further their own interests. Ironically, James J Hill, the main personality behind what has become Burlington Northern, was perhaps the most responsible Railroad Baron, often doing things for communities that have become unheard of today.

But then was then, and now is now. Now, it is a struggle to even maintain passenger service, like AMTRAK, much less expand its use. In competition with freight hauling, passenger service loses with regularity, which is a shame when the system -or lack of it- we have now is a very poor substitute for what Europe has come to enjoy and rely upon.

What has to happen before the unquestioned benefits of rail passenger service are dramatically improved?
The answer appears to be: dramatic changes in the way we regard railroads, how improvements are funded, and how railroads are regulated. All three are somewhat daunting, even in the face of growing transportation, energy and land use woes.

One small example illustrates the above point. This comes directly from BNSF's website, and pertains to Train Horn noise:

Why do trains sound horns?
Train horns are required by federal law to be sounded at all public crossings, 24 hours a day, to warn motorists and pedestrians that a train is approaching.
Train crews may also sound their horns when there is a vehicle, person or animal on or near the track and the crew determines it is appropriate to provide warning. Crews may also sound the horn when there are track or construction workers within 25 feet of a live track, or when gates and lights at the crossing are not functioning properly.

Are there any ways to reduce horn use?
One solution is for a community to look at what is required to qualify for a quiet zone under rules established by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). A quiet zone is a stretch of track where the FRA has agreed that trains are not required to routinely sound the horn at each public crossing except in emergencies, such as someone on the track or workers within 25 feet of the track or at the discretion of the crew, as appropriate.

Another alternative is to close crossings, especially if they are redundant, which automatically reduces the points where trains must blow their horns. BNSF has a special program dedicated to working with communities to close the number of public and private crossings on our network. Good candidates for closure include those that are redundant (other crossings nearby allow access to the same roads or areas), are not designated emergency routes, have low traffic volumes or are private crossings that are no longer needed or used.

Another option is to put in more grade separations (overpasses or underpasses). When communities build roads across rail lines, they have the option of building an overpass or underpass over or under the track. In some cases, when a community works with BNSF on a series of crossing closures on a corridor, a grade separation may be an option for one or more of the remaining crossings.

How can my community establish a quiet zone?
Communities can invest in additional grade-crossing safety devices to qualify for a quiet zone. However, only the FRA can grant a quiet zone. You can learn more about the FRA's quiet zone criteria on its website.
Community leaders who have questions about BNSF's role in the quiet zone process can e-mail Lyn Hartley, BNSF's director, Public Projects.

Does this seem fair or helpful? Sounds to me like the railroads are still claiming their turf, and requiring the burden of cost for safety, nuisance and access to be borne by 'others' -you & me. Wow, 200 years of history brings us to the point where the railroads are still claiming unusual privilege and externalizing all the problems created by the very growth they were chartered to help achieve.
Nice work, if you can get it!

Keeping things in perspective, railroads do play a critical role in our freight transportation, something necessary for our economy.
And, they do need some kind of immunity from the sometimes arbitrary, and always expensive, acts of municipalities through which rights of way pass.
But, it doesn't seem like these immunities are always justified, particularly when major, potentially harmful impacts are proposed - like the one currently under consideration at Cherry Point that requires a dramatic increase in train traffic through established areas and sensitive ecologies.
Maybe the required new Environmental Impact Study [EIS] will consider these things in a much wider scope than the coal terminal advocates want, but don't count on it.
The result is still very much in doubt, despite reasoned opposition.
Do not expect that railroads will give up their favored position easily, or spend dollars they don't absolutely have to spend.
[BTW, "PRB" means Powder River Basin]

The following details describe our likely situation should the coal terminal be approved and rail traffic increased to supply it:
Factors affecting rail car design specifications include railway beds, curves, track, railway gauge, bridges and tunnels, and condition of the system as a whole.
Railway Requirements
• The quality, composition and condition of railway beds affect the weight and speed of a railway car.
• Railway curves affect turning radius requirements.
• Railway track type determines wheel requirements.
• Railway gauge determines the width between wheels.
• Bridges and tunnels determine maximum height.
• The condition of the railway system determines gross weights and load limits for rail car configurations.
Note from the system map below, the three routes that BNSF has between Spokane and Coastal Washington. Of these, the most southern route along the north bank of the Columbia River to Vancouver, WA seems the preferred one. At least that would have allowed a coal terminal near Longview, which was earlier proposed -and rejected by local authorities for its devious and deceitful approach of grossly understating its size & purpose.
If BNSF were to use their route along the Columbia' perhaps two factors influence the choice of location for a coal terminal; proximity to a deep water port and competition with established grain & mineral trade from river barges.
And, while Longview area does provide deep water port sites, crossing the Columbia River bar to enter the Pacific Ocean might be problematic for the very large vessels [Cape class] expected to haul coal to Asian markets.

Now, using these same very large vessels is expected if the proposed Cherry Point Coal Terminal comes to fruition!
No Columbia Bar to cross here, just narrow channels weaving through ecologically sensitive waters & surroundings that are meccas for tourism and fishing.
Stay tuned for a future blog touching on this very problematic aspect.

Supplying a proposed 48 MMT/Y coal terminal at Cherry Point requires 18 additional trainloads per day [two full & 2 empty] to traverse essentially a single track south of Bellingham, which is already subject to periodic congestion, landslides and controversy. So, borrowing from a vendor's web page, let's look at aspects of what this would entail:

Hopper Cars, The "Coal Car"

Modern open-top hopper cars are a bit more sophisticated than what they might look. While these railroad freight cars today almost always haul coal or varying forms of aggregates, such as ballasting (a term which refers to the crushed rock used under the railroad tracks that acts as support and cushioning), coal, or iron ore they have a number of different drop-bottoms to empty their cargo.

“What are the differences between gondolas and hoppers?” The drop-bottoms are basically what separate the two car types. Whereas gondolas can look just like hoppers, right down to their size, length, commodity, and even a basic form of drop-bottoms as well (which discharges material straight down), the difference that separates them, is that hoppers contain some type of angled or sloped drop-bottom chutes or hatches, which use the force of gravity to quickly unload their cargo without having to tilt or turn the car upside down in any way.

The hopper car can trace its roots all the back to the very beginning of the railroad industry itself, being used as early as the late 1820s by the Delaware & Hudson Canal Company to move coal, which hasn’t changed too much over the last three centuries! Back then, however, the cars were not known as hoppers but jimmies, although they did carry all of the basic features that differentiate the car from its companions of today.

Over the years, as with all railroad freight cars, the hopper became larger and stronger (moving from wood and wood-steel construction to all-steel construction) able to haul heavier and heavier loads (which allowed for better efficiencies and thus, better ROI). For instance, during the United States Railroad Association’s reign during World War I, as with the 40-foot boxcar the hopper became standardized with the 55-ton version.

As the hopper became larger so did the number of drop-bottom chutes it carried; from two, to three, and now today most carry four chutes (more chutes allow for faster unloading times). Similarly, what has allowed the increased number of chutes on a hopper is mostly the result of its increase in size from 50 tons to today’s 100-ton capacity, which is the size most commonly used by the railroads today.

Today’s hopper car has come a long way, even from the USRA 55-ton standardized car of the early 20th century.
Not only are the current cars carrying 100-tons but also many now have rotary couplings to literally spin the car 360 degrees while still attached to the train to empty its cargo.

In future, the hopper car will undoubtedly become larger and more sophisticated. However, regardless of the changes it will go through, the car will be just as recognizable 50 years from now as it was 50 years ago, a platform capable of discharging a product quickly through bottom, angled chutes.
Hopper Car
• Hopper cars are designed to transport free flowing dry bulk commodities.
• Common commodities transported include grains, industrial minerals, plastic pellets, crushed rock, gravel and sand.
Features and Options
• Hopper cars are available in both covered and uncovered configurations.
• Hopper cars have the advantage of bulk loading from the top and bulk unloading through hoppers on the bottom.
• Special interior linings are available to protect specialty commodities.
• Different railcar manufacturers worldwide produce a variety of models designed for different container and stacking configurations.
• Weight and capacity data are a function of railcar manufacturer, railcar model, and rail system requirements.
• The following Dimensions, Weight/Capacity, and Curve Negotiability Radius data are valid for the Greenbrier Covered Hopper for Grain Service.

Length over couplers - 58' 0"
Length between truck centers - 52' 101/8"
Length, inside - 45' 51/2"
Height, extreme - 15' 6"
Height, rail to center line coupler - 341/2"
Width, extreme - 10' 8"
Weight/Capacity Light weight - 61,500 lbs [30.75 tons]
Gross rail load - 286,000 lbs
Load limit - 224,500 lbs [112.25 tons]
Capacity - 5,250 cu ft
Curve Negotiability Radius
-Uncoupled - 150'
-Coupled to like car - 199'
-Coupled to base car - 197'

Illustration and specifications courtesy The Greenbrier Companies, Inc.

So, putting this information together can produce an estimate of what we may expect, should the proposed coal terminal become a reality.

A typical, dedicated coal train might consist of 120 or more coal hopper cars and multiple -say three- diesel-electric locomotives, plus sufficient fuel to last for 1000 to 1500 miles, sand for increasing traction as needed, water and crew.

Each hopper car is 58-feet long and carries a 100-ton load of coal.
So, 58 times 120 equals 6960 feet, or about 1.32 miles total length.

Each locomotive is about 60 feet long and weighs about 150 to 200 tons, with Horsepower ranging between 2000 and 6000.
So, 3 times 60 equals 180 feet, or 0.034 miles, for a total train length of about 1.35 miles.

At a speed of 10 MPH, it takes about 8 minutes for a 1.35 mile-long train to pass any set point.
At 20 MPH, about 4 minutes
At 30 MPH, about 3 minutes
At 40 MPH, about 2 minutes

Most trains passing through Bellingham don't exceed about 30 MPH, and sometimes less.
BNSF tracks closely follow Bellingham's shoreline, which extends about 10 miles from City Limits, North & South.

So, the leading locomotive engine [with Horn] might require about 20 minutes to traverse the entire City, leaving about 8 minutes for the rest of the train to pass, with its track noise.
Of course, the Horn gets blown before reaching the City and can be heard after it leaves the City.

But, if we say each additional train will be heard by City residents for 20 minutes, then nine additional trains will be heard for 180 additional minutes [3 hours] per day.
Remember, this is in addition to the number of trains -about 9- that are already traversing the City. Adding existing and additional trains may total over 4 hours per day of Horn noise, allowing that some existing trains -think AMTRAK- are much shorter than 1.35 miles.

The point is, what may be tolerable at current levels may become much less tolerable at elevated levels, particularly at night.
If I can hear the train Horns from 2+ miles away, I'm pretty sure those living closer to the BNSF tracks will hear them too, and at higher decibels.
And NOISE is only one part of the potential impacts of additional trains carrying heavy loads.

Maybe lots of train traffic was believed to be desirable 100 years ago, but is it today?
For those still wishing to sing train songs, here's a great list: