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Tacoma Rail chugs along

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The slow times at Tacoma Rail, caused by the economic downturn of years passed, are gone as national and international shipping operations on the tideflats increase. That rise in traffic means the city-owned Tacoma Rail operations are chugging along at an increased pace.

“We are slowly coming out of the Great Recessionary period,” Tacoma Rail Superintendent Dale King said.

Its peak operations hit 14,000 cars a month in 2005 but that dropped to about 5,100 a month in 2009. Its business is driving up again alongside the improving economy, averaging about 13,000 cars a month, or about 10 percent off the peak.

The municipal web of 204 miles of tracks in Pierce and Thurston counties focuses on what is called the “first and last miles” of the transportation chain, linking the shipping terminals to long-haul cargo trains, Burlington Northern Santa Fe and Union Pacific by shuttling containers, from the shipping terminals after longshoreman build the train, to the rail yards for tranport around the nation or from the rail yards to the awaiting cargo ships. The division of Tacoma Public Utilities has 74 customers and an annual revenue of about $26 million from rail services and about $4 million in real estate leases.

The improving bottomline, however, doesn’t mean Tacoma Rail has a clear and bright future. The expansion of the Panama Canal, for example, could divert as much as 15 percent of the cargo traffic through Tacoma as international shipping traffic opts for an all-water route for their increasingly larger cargo vessels rather than offload on the West Coast only to shuttle the cars and products eastward on trains. Unfunded mandates and tighter regulations could also cut into the slim margins.

“We are looking at regulations coming down now,” King said.

One proposal would require Tacoma Rail to carry $500 million in insurance to cover damages and cleanup expenses associated with a massive accident involving oil trankers, born from the rise of oil tanker traffic around the nation and the fear of tanker explosions. The higher insurance requirement comes from cost projections based on an accident of an oil tanker derailing or crashing at speeds of 45 miles per hour. Tacoma Rail carries $100 million in insurance because its trains travel less than 10 miles per hour, averaging less than seven miles an hour.

But some critics worry that a large-scale incident could not only happen in Tacoma, but that just one could bankrupt the city. The blog Sightline Daily posted an article,“NW city most threatened by oil trains,” by Eric de Place earlier this year that outlined those fears.

The senario goes something like this: since about 80,000 barrels of crude oil travel through Tacoma’s tideflats every day, a disaster is just a matter of time. A massive oil-train derailment could cost upward of $5 billion in damages, dwarfing Tacoma Rail’s insurance cap. That would leave the City of Tacoma on the hook for the rest.

“No other urban center in the region plays host to so much oil train capacity inside city limits,” the article reads. “The risks of oil trains have been made plain by the 10 catastrophic explosions that North America has seen in the last two years, to say nothing of the billion-dollar risk to the public that is virtually uninsured. The two terminals (US Oil Refinery and Targa Sound Terminal) put the people of Tacoma directly in harm’s way of a fiery derailment, the likes of which have become all-too-common in the news. Uncommonly, though, Tacoma’s local rail system is publicly owned, so unlike other places that see oil trains, the City of Destiny also bears the risk of financial catastrophe from an oil train derailment. It’s a risk so severe that even a single accident might bankrupt the city.”

That’s a scenario, King said, that is more based on science fiction than fact, since the slower speeds of trains chugging around the tideflats can’t cause the doomsday scenario of massive explosure.

“The chances of that happening are slim to none, and slim left town,” King said.

It’s simply a matter of physics, he said.

“Cars going that slow just lean over,” King said, noting that U.S. Oil, the larger of the two refineries on the tideflats also has all new cars and is set to receive the next-generation cars.

The most costly accident in Tacoma Rail’s history occurred last summer and was an act of vandalism rather than error. People apparently put a large rock onto tracks in Thurston County. The train engineer began to slow down but couldn’t stop in time to miss the rock, which tapped out puncture holes in the engine’s diesel tank as it morse-coded along the bottom of the tank before the train could stop. Some 2,000 gallons of diesel leaked onto the tracks, which meant Tacoma Rail had to remove about 1,300 cubic yards of then-contaminated soil at a cost of $400,000. The crime has yet to be solved despite investigations by the FBI and local law enforcement agencies.

The larger worry for King is the ever-competitive and changing industry of international trade and one-size-fits-all regulations that affect it. But that competition could bring opportunties to fuel growth since the tideflats are generally already fully webbed with rail tracks.

One not-open-for-discussion idea that bubbled up from time to time is for Tacoma Rail to take over the train stacking duties for BNSF and the UP railroad rather than have those rail companies operate their own yards alongside Tacoma Rail.

A consolidated yard could increase efficiencies and potentially solve concerns like the ongoing controversy around the 54th Avenue railroad crossing in Fife. Union Pacific owns the track and has plans to open a second track for the “stacking” of container cars from its rail yard nearby. The at-grade crossing is only open to emergency responders, while nearby residents and the Puyallup Tribe, which owns property in the neighborhood, want a crossing open to general traffic. Plans to flow added rail cars to the area throw a wrench into an already complicated issue.

“We could solve a lot of those problems,” King said, by taking over those stacking issues that could be handled elsewhere in the rail system.