BNSF making improvements in the Gorge

Railrway spending $5 billion in 28 states, 2 Canadian provinces

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

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BNSF making rail improvements in Gorge

BNSF Railroad is in the midst of major upgrades of its rail lines across the nation, including in Washington, with improvements now underway on the heavily used Columbia River Gorge rail segment.

BNSF Railway is in the midst of major upgrades of its rail lines across the nation, including in Washington, with improvements now underway on the heavily used Columbia River Gorge rail segment.

The railroad is spending $5 billion in 28 states and two Canadian provinces on track improvements and other upgrades, including $900 million on its northern corridor from the Great Lakes region to the Northwest, said Seattle-based spokesman Gus Melonas. BNSF won't disclose its spending on the Columbia River Gorge segment in Washington.

Last year, the railroad spent $125 million along the Columbia River segment and it's likely that spending will be even higher this year. Melonas characterized the railroad's planned spending on track improvements in Washington as "a significant amount."

The work between Vancouver and Wishram, 90 miles to the east, will include a replacement of the 106-year-old Washougal River bridge east of Camas. That work begins this year and will be mostly finished by the end of next year, Melonas said

"The backbone of an efficient and safe rail operation is a strong track structure," he said.

The railroad says it intends to hire 100 workers in Vancouver for jobs including track maintenance, signal and mechanical operations workers, and conductor trainees. Melonas said. The Vancouver terminal currently has about 750 employees, he said.

As for system improvements, the most expansive upgrades in Washington this year will take place between Pacso and Spokane. Improvements to that segment will include new double-tracking in some areas, Melonas said.

BNSF Railway, owned by Warren Buffett's Berkshire-Hathaway, is enjoying major growth in demand. The railroad is moving crude oil and coal from the Midwest and Canada to shipping terminals, including ports in Washington and Oregon, for transport to refineries and final markets. BNSF handled more than half of the railroad industry's volume increase in 2013, Melonas said.

And that's only the beginning. Locally, Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies have proposed an oil transfer terminal at the Port of Vancouver that is now under review by a state regulatory agency, and a coal export terminal is proposed in Longview.

"We will continue to grow to meet needs in the future," Melonas said.

BNSF's track alignment from North Dakota's Bakken oil region to the Northwest "is a perfect fit," Melonas said.

BNSF Railroad is taking steps to meet present and future demand, including moving oil, natural gas, and coal to terminals for shipping to refineries or export. The railroad's traffic volumes are still below the peak year of 2006, he said, but are steadily rising. In the Gorge, some 40 trains on average move daily on the BNSF main line, down from the 2006 peak of about 45 trains per day, Melonas said.

Oil train accidents in the U.S. and Canada have heightened public concern about rail safety, and BNSF says it's taking steps to ramp up safety efforts and emergency response to accidents and hazardous materials releases. BNSF is working with local emergency responders along its rail corridor on effective response to dangerous incidents. Last year, it trained more than 800 emergency providers in Washington, including some from the Vancouver Fire Department, on how to respond to incidents, he said.

The last fatality on BNSF's northern corridor from a hazardous materials release was in 1981, in Vancouver, Melonas said. That incident resulted in the death of one Burlington Northern employee.

BNSF also announced recently that it plans to purchase 5,000 of what are called next-generation rail tank cars, which have added safety features. The proposal is out for bid.

BNSF improvements