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Report Identifies Coal Train Traffic Challenges for MT

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PHOTO: Coal train. Photo credit: Paul Anderson
PHOTO: Coal train. Photo credit: Paul Anderson
 By Deborah Courson Smith/Deb Courson Smith, Contact
July 12, 2012

BILLINGS, Mont. - The Powder River Basin has something Asia wants: coal. Plans to send coal overseas mean the coal will travel via trains to western ports. A first-of-its-kind analysis, funded by the Western Organization of Resource Councils, takes a look at some of the effects of increased train traffic, including associated costs.

Report co-author Terry Whiteside says the coal trains will compete with existing traffic for grain, timed deliveries and Amtrak; coal transport is expected to double the tons of freight on the tracks by 2022. He estimates the costs of upgrades to tracks and related infrastructure will reach hundreds of millions of dollars.

Whiteside is calling for everyone to get to the table for discussions.

"What has to happen, as we go forward, is the conversations need to start between all the affected parties. The more conversations that can occur, the more we're going to get to resolutions."

Traditionally, taxpayers foot the bill for additional overpasses, underpasses and other structures, Whiteside explains.

Report co-author Trey Fauth focused on exactly how the additional train traffic would be managed. He identified two "funnels" where almost every train will have to travel, he says.

"The line through Billings and the line from Sandpoint to Spokane will handle virtually all the coal trains. Clearly, to handle this projected traffic, significant infrastructure improvements will have to be made."

Those two sections are already near capacity, he warns.

Other concerns highlighted in the report include congestion of vehicle traffic, the possible delay of emergency vehicles, increased air pollution from coal dust and the trains themselves, and effects on property rights and land values.

The full report is available at www.HeavyTrafficAhead.org.

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