Coal – Powder River Basin to WA

A coal train rolls along the Columbia River Photography: Trip Jennings

The Powder River Basin (PRB) is a geologic region in southeast Montana and northeast Wyoming, about 120 miles east to west and 200 miles north to south. It is the single largest source of coal mined in the United States, and contains one of the largest deposits of coal in the world. The coal is strip mined from deposits often 100′ deep using federal lands leases. The two states receive 48% of the lease payments so very little is returned to the US taxpayer who owns the land net of BLM operational costs.

Bidding practices in the Powder River Basin are facing a number of lawsuits from environmental groups (including the recent Obama adminstration offering of new leases) since the 1990 BLM decision to “decertified” that it was a “coal producing area”. The decertification has allowed looser bidding practices which routinely mean only a single mine, immediately adjacent to the strip being leased, offers a bid – seriously eroding taxpayer returns.

From PRB coal is shipped using “unit trains” which are sized according to siding lengths and other conditions on the the route they will take (B’ham lengths). The use of the unit train simplifies the process by assembling a standardized train that BNSF picks up at a mine and drops off at a terminal. Loading and unloading are handled by the mining and terminal companies. BNSF routes the trains to avoid grades that would require profit eroding activities like stopping to add and later remove extra engines in the middle of the unit train.

For the Gateway Pacific Terminal (GPT) destination this means that trains enter the state through Spokane then head to Tri-Cities to take the long gentle downhill grade along the Columbia River to Vancouver. From there the route is essentially flat, first through Longview then turning north through Olympia before traveling above the edge of the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge to emerge on the shorelines of South Puget Sound which they follow all the way to Tacoma. From Tacoma they head into the Kent valley running along the passenger transit corridor through multiple valley communities to Seattle. Once past King St station and through the tunnel they emerge along the north end of the Seattle waterfront and along that part of the Elliot Bay Trail, across the Ballard Locks, through Golden Gardens Park and again hit the waters edge. They stay on the shoreline, crossing sensitive waterways, all the way to Marysville except for a brief pass through the Everett Yards. The route then runs through rural farmlands and smaller communities until landing in Mt Vernon. After leaving Mt Vernon and passing through Burlington it takes a western turn from the alternate inland route and heads to Bow. The Bow to Bellingham segment is all single track and runs directly on the shoreline except for an excursion through Larrabee State Park and South Chuckanut residences. After rounding Chuckanut Bay on the waters edge, it runs the entire length of Bellingham’s waterfront and finally, still via single track, to Ferndale. The entire Bow to Ferndale segment represents a significant bottleneck for railroad traffic. North of Ferndale expanded sidings and yard facilities near Custer will service the spur to the new facility.