HELENA — Increased coal exports could increase traffic through Helena by about eight to 10 train loads a day, a Montana Rail Link official said Thursday.
Jim Lewis, the director of sales and marketing for MRL, said that’s the company's estimate — four to five more trains in each direction — if proposed port expansions on the West Coast are approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, if demand grows in the Pacific Rim nations, and if natural gas doesn’t continue to displace the demand for coal.
The estimate is based on 50 million tons of additional coal exported annually and is considerably less than the 40 to 60 additional trains that he said some groups have predicted.
“We don’t see that happening,” Lewis said at the Hometown Helena weekly coffee gathering.
MRL currently runs about 15 trains a day through Helena, five of which are coal trains — half of them empty when heading east.
Dozens of attendees of Hometown Helena signed a certificate of appreciation for MRL on Thursday.
Northern Plains Resource Council, one of the groups sounding alarms over coal development, disagrees with MRL’s estimates. The group says movement of 50 million to 100 million tons of coal annually — which would require approval of at least a couple of the proposed port expansions — would mean 19 to 37 additional trains daily, half of them full and half of them empty.
“We think that MRL is downplaying the amount of coal train traffic that is going to be going through Helena,” said Charyn Ayoub, membership coordinator with Sleeping Giant Citizens Council, the Northern Plains affiliate in Helena.
Northern Plains bases its numbers on estimates from active and proposed coal mining operations in Eastern Montana and Wyoming, and the applications for the port expansions.
It’s not certain how many of the coal trains would go through Helena instead of the other route from Laurel to the coast, through Great Falls and over Marias Pass, but Ayoub said the Helena route is the shortest and fastest to the coast.
Lewis said there are inherent capacity issues for MRL, notably the Mullan Tunnel through the Continental Divide west of Helena.
That single-track route, nearly 130 years old, suffered an internal rock slide in 2009, forcing a temporary rerouting of train traffic and a furlough of local workers.
The northern route, controlled by Burlington Northern Santa Fe, would also require infrastructure upgrades for a significant increase in traffic.
MRL can create some efficiencies, such as adding mainline fueling facilities at its yard in Laurel, so locomotives don’t have to detach from trains and go to the roundhouse to refuel, Lewis said.
Lewis said some of the opposition to increased train traffic involves delays to automobile traffic at places like the crossing of North Montana Avenue in Helena.
MRL has said it has no plans to build major infrastructure for vehicular traffic such as overpasses. Those are typically the responsibility of entities such as the Montana Department of Transportation.
“I’m more of the opinion that there’s probably some better common-sense approaches than either private money or tax money going into an overpass at some of these locations,” Lewis said.
For example, MRL has been working with Billings authorities, he said, about what could be done to create traffic flows, or put up warning light systems at the crossings.
“There are other alternatives,” he said. “With the new interchange here at Custer (Avenue), if someone’s got to get to the hospital, they can get on the freeway and probably get there quicker than going through the center of Helena.”
Traffic was one issue cited by Helena City Commissioners when they voted 3-2 in June to send a letter to the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, which has the authority to approve the port developments. The commission called for the Corps to study the effects — with a so-called Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement — of the ports on inland communities such as Helena.
In September, the commission followed other communities in the state and passed a resolution of support for MRL, citing its economic contributions to the area.
Lewis said MRL employs more than 1,000 workers in the state, 90 percent of them unionized, with an average annual salary of about $63,000, plus benefits and profit sharing.
In Helena, the company employs about 100 people and spends about $10.4 million in the area, including $750,000 just on hotel rooms for employees, he said. It also pays about $500,000 annually in property taxes.
The five coal trains that MRL now runs through Helena maintain about 124 jobs, Lewis said, meaning each additional train would add about 24 jobs.
MRL owns 96 locomotives and about 1,300 freight cars along its 937 miles of track from Laurel to Sandpoint, Idaho. BNSF also uses MRL’s tracks, and MRL has rights to use tracks into Spokane, Wash.
Lewis, who was raised in Helena, took the job with MRL in 2010.
“As soon as he went to work, people began throwing rocks at the railroad, if you will, or coal, or something,” his father, Republican state Sen. Dave Lewis said while introducing him at Hometown Helena. “And so he’s had a really interesting and character-building year and a half.”
Northern Plains is trying to keep pressure on the Corps to consider the effects on Montana of the port expansion, despite an indication that at least on the first port application, for Cherry Point, Wash., near Bellingham, it would not conduct the broad regional study.
Northern Plains is running a bus from Billings to Spokane on Tuesday for a scoping hearing the Corps is holding. The bus is leaving Billings at 4 a.m. and stopping for passengers in Livingston, Bozeman, Helena and Missoula.
While in Helena, the group plans a rally in front of the state Capitol at 9:30 a.m.