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As Rail Lines Come to Life, Towns and Trains Collide

Changes in global trade and the economy mean more freight trains are moving through America’s neighborhoods and communities, but not everyone hears romance when a locomotive whistles in the night.
by | October 17, 2012

WASHINGTON — Changes in global trade and the economy mean more freight trains are moving through America’s neighborhoods and communities, but not everyone hears romance when a locomotive whistles in the night.

Along the shores of Washington state, through the suburbs of Chicago and even in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol, traffic has come back to the rails.

But with its resurgence comes more potential for conflict with neighbors who may not have thought twice about buying a house near the tracks in quieter times.

“It’s been known for at least 15 years that railroads were recovering market share,” said Tony Hatch, a rail industry analyst. “That does mean somewhere there’s going to be more trains.”

In the Pacific Northwest, a plan involving rail to build five new export terminals would turn the region into a major exporter of coal, a commodity that environmentalists loathe.

The coal for the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal, near Bellingham, Wash., would arrive by trains from mines in the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana, and be transferred to ships bound for power plants in Asia.

Supporters see the opportunity to boost local tax revenue and jobs in a region with high unemployment. They claim the project will add 400 workers when it reaches full capacity.

“A lot of people’s lives depend on getting these jobs,” said Allen Brown, a retired firefighter who lives in Bellingham. “You can’t feed your family serving coffee at Starbucks.”

But critics worry about the noise, coal dust, exhaust and road-crossing delays. One of the region’s largest Indian tribes, the Lummi Nation, opposes the project because of its potential impact on local waterways.

“The more that people learn about these projects, the less they like them,” said Jan Hasselman, an attorney for the environmental group Earthjustice.

Railroads have invested billions to improve their network in the past three decades, but the federal government and states have had to make large investments to deal with rail chokepoints in urban areas.

Some of the most congested cities, including Kansas City, Mo., Chicago, Los Angeles and Fort Worth, Texas, have or will receive hundreds of millions of dollars in government financing to get trains out of each other’s way, and the public’s.

“Nationally, we need those bottlenecks to be addressed,” said David Clarke, director of the Center for Transportation Research at the University of Tennessee. “There’s a lot of commerce at stake.”

In the nation’s capital, the CSX line wants to demolish the century-old Virginia Avenue Tunnel near a historic neighborhood not far from the U.S. Capitol and replace it with one wide enough for two tracks and tall enough for double-stacked containers. It’s the most efficient way to transport consumer goods.

Too narrow and too low, the current tunnel has become a major impediment to commerce along the East Coast. But the $160 million project, which the railroad is paying for, would take two or three years to complete, and residents would face construction noise, street closures and possibly trains running through an open trench right outside their windows.

Neighbors voiced their frustration at a recent public meeting. Officials with Jacksonville, Fla.-based CSX, whose network covers the eastern third of the country, wouldn’t comment on what the railroad might do to ease concerns. But they said the project must undergo an environmental review before construction begins.

“It is very helpful as the process develops to hear from the public,” said Chip Dobson, the tunnel project manager for CSX, though he added, “Some things may not be feasible or possible.”

Mike McMurtrie, who lives nearby, accepts that the neighborhood would be inconvenienced for a while.

“I think it’s a necessary thing,” he said.

Communities have little power to control what moves by rail within their borders. Some have attempted to ban certain cargoes, such as coal, but only the federal government has the power to regulate interstate commerce.

Others have demanded that the railroads pay for overpasses and underpasses, a responsibility that usually falls to state and local governments.

The Canadian National Railway’s plan to reroute freight away from congested downtown Chicago and into the suburbs has become a flashpoint.

When trains of 10,000 feet or longer began rolling through the village of Barrington, they blocked four road crossings at once, splitting the town down the middle, separating the business district from a high school and a hospital.

“More is coming, and we know it,” said Karen Darch, the village president, which wants Washington to force the railroad to pay for a highway overpass through town.

But whether in Barrington, Bellingham or Washington, Hatch, the rail industry analyst, was optimistic that disputes could be settled.

“Those problems can be mitigated,” he said, “and in several years maybe we’ll forget there was a fight about it."

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