City of Seattle

Ed Murray, Mayor


SUBJECT:   Coal trains would significantly increase delays at railroad crossings
11/5/2012  1:00:00 PM

Coal trains would significantly increase delays at railroad crossings
Study examines traffic and safety impact of increase in coal trains

SEATTLE - An increase in coal trains running through Seattle would increase delays at railroad crossings by between one and three hours per day by 2026, according to a Parametrix study commissioned by the Seattle Department of Transportation. These delays could increase police and fire response times for emergencies in the affected areas, particularly in SODO.

"This study suggests that 18 coal trains per day, each one more than a mile long, could significantly increase traffic delays between our waterfront and our maritime and industrial businesses," said Mayor Mike McGinn. "The public and policymakers need to take a close look at these findings as we examine the proposal to export more coal."

"This study raises serious concerns about the impact to public safety and our transportation network," said Councilmember Mike O'Brien. "I will be sharing these findings with my colleagues and urging them to consider the impacts of coal trains on our city."

A proposed coal export terminal at Cherry Point in Whatcom County could lead to as many as 18 coal trains per day traveling through Seattle, bringing coal mined in Wyoming to the terminal for export to markets in Asia. The Seattle Department of Transportation commissioned Parametrix to study the impact of these trains on traffic and public safety in Seattle.

The study found that daily gate down times at railroad crossing would increase with coal train operations. The increase is dependent on the length of train, how fast it is travelling, and how many daily trains are scheduled.

  • In 2015, the estimated additional daily gate down time for coal trains could be 31 to 83 minutes. This could represent an increase in daily gate down time of approximately 18% to 49% at Broad Street and 15% to 39% at both Holgate and Lander Street.
  • In 2026, the estimated additional daily gate down time for coal trains could be approximately 67 to 183 minutes. This could represent an increase in daily gate down of approximately 39% to 108% at Broad Street and 31% to 86% at Holgate and Lander Streets.

In turn, vehicles could be lined up for a longer period of time at railroad crossings. Depending on the time between gate closures, vehicle queues may not fully dissipate before the next gate closing, meaning some drivers would have to wait for multiple trains to pass before being able to cross to the other side of the tracks.

The study also examined impacts to public safety, finding that blockage from the proposed coal trains would impact emergency vehicle trips to and from the waterfront. Blocked train crossings affect response time for fire responses, technical rescue groups, hazardous materials responses, and emergency medical responses where rapid response times are especially important. Delays would not only affect local area responses, but could also affect the ability to send more safety resources from one area of the city to another as needed.

Another finding of the study was that in the past 10 years, trains of all kinds were directly involved in a total of four collisions at Broad Street, Wall Street, and Holgate Street. A total of 127 improper crossings were recorded within a 24-hour period at the Broad Street, South Holgate Street, and South Lander Street crossings alone involving vehicles, bicycles and/or pedestrians. Improper crossings occur when vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians cross the tracks when the red lights start to flash or the railroad gates were down. This type of behavior could increase with more delays and could increase the potential for train collisions with vehicles, pedestrians, or bicyclists, and blocking incidents.

A public hearing on coal trains will be hosted by the Washington Department of Ecology, the US Army Corps of Engineers, and Whatcom County at North Seattle Community College on November 13, from 4:00 pm to 7:00 pm.

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