Can a Rail Line Operate at 170% of its Practical Capacity?

Posted on Jan 29, 2015

Washington’s rail system is expected to handle more than 260 million tons of cargo by 2035— more than double the volume carried on the system in 2010. The highest utilized portion of the states railway system is the BNSF’s Spokane to Pasco segment which currently operates at 87%  of practical capacity. By 2035, this segment is forecasted to be operating at 170% utilization.

But this raises the question of how a rail line could even operate at 170% of utilization. The answer is that maybe it could…but with lots and lots of costly delays and capacity issues.

Congestion on the BNSF rail line has a direct impact on local businesses in Grant and Adams Counties because all rail shipments into Adams County and the south part of Grant county must travel along the BNSF line and then interchange with the Columbia Basin Railroad short line in Connell. The interchange between the short line and the BNSF mainline in Connell was built 100 years ago and is inefficient for meeting existing rail customers’ needs and the problem continues to get worse as rail traffic increases.

Fortunately, work is already underway to develop a comprehensive plan for identifying and prioritizing specific projects that will increase freight mobility and allow for efficient rail service. A meeting led by state legislators including Rep. Matt Manweller, Rep. Susan Fagan, Sen. Judy Warnick , and Rep. Tom Dent brought together stakeholder from across the three counties of Franklin, Adams and Grant to work together to solve the rail infrastructure challenges.

As a direct result of that meeting, the City of Connell has taken the lead role in applying for a state grant to conduct a detailed feasibility study of the rail transportation needs and future growth along the Columbia Basin Railroad short line and identify and prioritize specific projects that will be needed to accommodate that growth.

“Each community along the rail line has its own list of rail projects and needs,” said Jonathan Smith, Executive Director for the Grant County EDC. “While each of these projects could be addressed on a case-by-case basis we believe that by working together in a regional partnership we can better support the needs of business.”

One of the most recent businesses to locate along the rail line is Pacific Coast Canola which built a $109 million facility and relies on rail to receive unit trains consisting of 110 cars. Other large rail users include Simplot, Akzo Nobel, ConAgra LambWeston, McCains, REC Silicon, Western Polymer, and Basic American Foods. In total, the Columbia Basin Railroad line currently serves 60 active shippers that collectively employ thousands of residents across the 60+ miles of track.“

Hopefully we never have to find out if a rail line can operate at 170 percent of its intended capacity,” said Smith. “By working together we have much better chance of accomplishing all of the needed projects on the rail line so that as traffic increases, we will have the infrastructure in place to accommodate that traffic.