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Monday, September 25, 2023
Sept. 25, 2023

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Vancouver’s United Grain executive warns damage from rail strike could be swift, severe

Threatened Friday strike comes during critical harvest period

By , Columbian staff writer

The economic damage of a rail strike would be swift and severe, a top local executive warned in a letter to Southwest Washington’s congressional delegation Wednesday.

Hundreds of thousands of rail cars travel in and out of Washington each year, bringing in oil and food and exporting lumber and other goods to be dispersed around the nation. That could all come to a screeching halt this weekend, as railroads begin to shut down pending the national rail strike.

BNSF Railway operates 1,457 miles of railroad in Washington and 426 miles in Oregon. Meanwhile, Union Pacific operates 1,072 miles in Oregon and 541 miles in Washington. Both companies are involved in negotiations with rail workers.

Railroad employees in the region number in the thousands, with 1,781 in Oregon and 4,435 in Washington, according to an Association of American Railroads’ 2019 analysis.

Local effects

Augusto Bassanini, chief executive at United Grain Corp., sent a letter to Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell and Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler on Wednesday asking for their support for congressional action to prevent a shutdown.

The strike, which is set to begin Friday, would occur as grain harvests across the nation are ramping up, said Bassanini.

“Without rail service to move those crops, many facilities will begin to fill to capacity and may be limited on deliveries they can take from producers,” he said, adding that exporters in the Pacific Northwest primarily use railroads to move goods to export terminals.

“Alternatives are not available to make up for this lost capacity in a supply chain that has faced one challenge after another for the last 2½ years,” Bassanini said. “The economic damages across the food and agricultural supply chain would be swift and severe.”

The executive said the company currently has 20 million bushels to export from its Vancouver terminal, most of which is arriving by rail.

United Grain operates a grain elevator at the Port of Vancouver. Wheat comes into the port by rail from Eastern Washington and Oregon. The company’s facilities in Idaho, Montana and North Dakota handle corn sorghum, barley and soybeans, all of which are transported by rail.

“No one wins if a shutdown occurs — the agricultural value chain and consumers who rely on it stand to lose the most,” Bassanini concluded.

Passenger rail

Rail passengers traveling through Vancouver will likely also be out of luck. Amtrak has already canceled its Empire Builder and Coast Starlight routes — both of which pass through the city. The Coast Starlight line runs from California to Vancouver, B.C., while the Empire Builder runs from Chicago to Portland and Seattle.

“Because the parties have not yet reached a resolution, Amtrak has begun to make initial service adjustments in response to a possible freight railroad service interruption that could occur later this week,” read a statement on Amtrak’s website.

The Amtrak Cascades route, which runs through Oregon and Washington, may be canceled, as well. The passenger rail company has secured buses for Thursday to transport passengers if necessary, according to a Wednesday blog post from the Washington State Department of Transportation.

“However, if a strike occurs, it will result in complete service disruptions starting on Friday, Sept. 16, and there are no buses available this weekend to provide alternative transportation options,” read the WSDOT post.

Amtrak and its workforce are not involved in the larger rail negotiations; however, Amtrak uses tracks owned by the companies involved in negotiations. In the Northwest, those companies are BNSF and Union Pacific.

“These railroad companies control all train movements in this region and therefore the potential strike of their workers will affect Amtrak Cascades trains. Our trains cannot operate without the BNSF and Union Pacific dispatchers,” WSDOT said.

According to the Amtrak website, the company will attempt to notify passengers whose trains have been canceled 24 hours in advance and will be given the chance to get a full refund.