Observation car on the Amtrak Empire Builder - headed through Montana.
Empire Builder is a daily passenger train linking downtown Chicago to either Seattle or Portland, Oregon. The journey takes 46 hours - or more 'if delays occur along the route.' Freight trains infamously add big delays. Though most would rather see the China trade on freight trains instead of trucks, hauling vast amounts of coal to feed Chinese steel mills and boilers via train - as currently being proposed - is a relatively new idea which casts freight trains in a negative light. If requisite port expansions are permitted by Western states, coal trains are sure to make the Empire Builder journey a real serious drag, while keeping China's economy growing (guess whose Empire is booming?).
The aspect of this struggle which matters more to the US economy is less between coal and environment interests and more between industrial development and 'tea party' thinking - continent crossing trains can't wait for states to line up to helplThe heat is on.
From the mine's edge to longshoreman punch in gate, workers and politicians are pushing for this to happen.
A new generation of railroad and coal barons are especially hot to export coal to China in order to take advantage of the floods that have closed Australian coal mines, driving prices up. Adding to that, Montana's Governor Schweitzer has paid a visit to Washington's Governor Governor Gregoire for a bit of Dem-to-Dem arm twisting to help ensure new coal ports will be approved.
As reported by Floyd McKay for Seattle Crosscut.com, How great corporate power shadows Gregoire on coal shipments to China
Gregoire, after a hastily-arranged meeting Wednesday with Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, took no sides but worried environmentalists when she told King5 News, "I have no personal objection whatsoever to us having coal come through our ports and exported somewhere around the world." Gregoire said that for the present, she just wants to be sure regulatory rules are followed, and she would take no position on the Longview site.Amtrak is a quasi-state managed enterprise and the coal-passenger train impact risk has been discussed locally.
At the same time that the state looks forward to putting $161 million in new federal grants to work to improve Amtrak service from Seattle to Blaine, the prospect of sharing the tracks with mile-long coal trains is sobering...[skipping down a bit in the article] it is difficult to see a scenario in which Amtrak could substantially increase its passenger trains north of Seattle at the same time that BNSF a dozen coal trains of a mile or more in length-all on a single track. Presently, passengers on Amtrak are accustomed to waiting on sidings while freight trains thunder by on the main track.The impact of more coal trains on passenger service is not a trivial concern. Heres' a synopsis of the Empire Builder's importance, via Wikipedia:
During fiscal year 2010, the Empire Builder carried a total of 533,493 passengers, a 3.5% increase from FY 2009's total of 515,444 passengers. This made the Empire Builder the most popular long-distance train in the Amtrak system. The train had a total revenue of $58,497,143 in FY 2010, an increase of 8.2% from FY 2009's total of $54,064,861.
What is the root cause of the projected conflict?
There's no solution in blaming Federal funding of planned passenger train expansions; nor in criticizing private companies for over-exploiting track built and maintained with a fair amount of taxpayer support since WWII. The root cause of the conflict is an outdated, underfunded railroad system.
Are the coal and railroad industry lobbies up to facing down the Tea Partiers, sufficient to ramp up those railroad stimulus grants and add tracks? I doubt it. Hence, my cynical headline.