The number of freight trains loaded with coal that pass through Montana could significantly grow in the next several years, thanks to the planned development of new ports on the West Coast with an eye on the abundant coal of Eastern Montana and Wyoming.
The Northern Plains Resource Council estimates demand from Asian markets at the new ports could mean 20 to 30 additional fully loaded 120-car coal trains each day coming from Montana, and the same number of empty trains traveling the other direction.
That means more noise, diesel fumes and traffic delays, as well as increased response times for emergency vehicles, say critics of the traffic.
It’s unclear how such an increase would be distributed between the state’s two main rail routes from coal country, through Helena and Great Falls.
Now, Montana Rail Link averages five coal trains per day through Helena (half full, half empty) out of about 15 trains a day total, said a spokeswoman.
“It’s just going to be that much worse, when the number of trains increases,” said Eric Regensberger, who as representative of the Midtown-Sixth Ward Neighborhood Association fought in favor of a “quiet zone” for trains through town. “When you account for all the intersections and four whistles per intersection, it adds up.”
An engineering study on the quiet zone last year pegged the possible costs at $130,000 to $980,000 for the safety upgrades necessary if trains cut back on their use of loud horns.
“The general desire to have a quiet zone will just increase with increased train traffic,” he said.
The Sleeping Giant Citizens Council, an affiliate of the Northern Plains Resource Council, is holding a public forum on the issue April 25 at 6:30 p.m., at Helena’s Gateway Center, 1710 National Ave.
The council’s apprehensions about the traffic come as developers in Washington and Oregon seek permits for ports that the NPRC says combined could eventually export as much as 150 million tons of coal annually. At the same time, demand from coal-fired powered plants in the American Midwest has been dropping, said Shiloh Hernandez of the Sleeping Giant Citizens Council.
Hernandez said more trains in Helena means more likelihood of accidents and derailments and danger to property values near the tracks.
“It would be a significant disruption to the flow of life in the town,” he said.
He said there may have to be upgrades of lights and barriers and other infrastructure at crossings — maybe even new underpasses or overpasses, and he said government officials need to make sure the taxpayers are not stuck with the bill for such improvements.
Lynda Frost, a Montana Rail Link spokeswoman, said the rail company pays for its own infrastructure upgrades and that the rail line did not anticipate increases in coal traffic in the next year.
She said the coal dust releases from rail cars have been reduced by 85 percent by using a modified loading chute and applying certain substances to the coal.
Lewis and Clark County Commission Chairman Derek Brown and Helena City Commissioner Matt Elsaesser both said there have been no formal local government discussions about the potential increase. Elsaesser has also been working with Montana Rail Link on the development of the Centennial Trail through town.
County Sheriff Leo Dutton said there are multiple routes to most places in the valley, and emergency responders already consider the possibility of blocked railroad crossings when they travel. If there’s a delay, they can take Henderson Street or Interstate 15 into the north valley.
Trains are allowed to block traffic for a maximum of 15 minutes, he said.
Possibly problematic could be unexpected trains at the crossings at Head Lane and Birdseye Road, for example.
“Having the advantage to know that the road’s blocked would be critical,” he said. “But that doesn’t exist right now.”