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Economic and dam related articles

Full Speed Ahead,
and Right Now

by Kelley Kearsley
The News Tribune, June 22, 2005

(Bruce Kellman) A BNSF Railway train with four engines and 116 cars heads northwest from the Port of Tacoma between the Thea Foss Waterway and Schuster Parkway. A communications hub that will house employees from three rail lines and the Port of Tacoma has opened a year ahead of schedule due to the rapid influx of cargo coming into Tacoma.

The empty cubicles, boxes of computer monitors and white walls of the new Tacoma Command Center don't look like much now, but Jeannie Beckett, the Port of Tacoma's senior director of inland transportation, can see the potential.

She envisions flat-screen monitors on the walls showing rail schedules, and charts and graphs of incoming and outgoing cargo. She sees employees from the port and rail lines talking in person instead of on cell phones.

And she sees customers happy with how quickly trains move out of the port and onto their final destination.

The staff of the command center, which will include workers from the port as well as Tacoma Rail, BNSF Railway (formerly known as Burlington Northern and Santa Fe) and Union Pacific rail lines, will coordinate rail activity, tackle emergencies and plan for growth together.

Some of that work is done now over daily conference calls, e-mail and cell phones. Doing the work in person will make communication easier and faster, and ultimately improve the speed at which trains are sent on their way, Beckett said.

The center has a public work space as well as individual offices for each organization so discussions can be held in private.

Plans for such a center have been in the works for years.

"People projected that we would have this much volume someday," Beckett said. "They knew that the trade tsunami would come."

Few people anticipated it would happen as fast as it did.

In February and March, the port experienced a significant spike in cargo, recording the largest weekly amount of intermodal lifts - containers lifted on and off trains - in the port's history. The number then spiked three more times before the last week of March, with the highest being 13,276 lifts in one week. The port's previous high was 11,777 lifts in November 2004.

Port and rail officials expect to see even higher numbers this summer and fall.

The spike prompted BNSF to call for the command center to come together sooner. It opened in May on the third floor of the Port of Tacoma Business Center. The port, Tacoma Rail and the Union Pacific have cited their support for the accelerated schedule. Tacoma Rail is the city-owned line that helps move freight trains around the port. The other two rail lines deliver the goods nationwide.

For Dennis Dean, Tacoma Rail's superintendent, the growth has demanded a setup that puts all those who make decisions in one spot.

"You need to get the people together who use the same infrastructure for flow," he said. "And you need to get the same people together so that decisions can be made that have the best effect on the customers."

The next step for the command center is for each organization to determine how many people will staff it and for how long. BNSF already has two people working there. Depending on their resources, the other organizations are determining whether they will need staff there day and night, seven days a week.

Each partner is also determining what data it would like the center to gather and what outcomes it wants to see from the group, Dean said.

To Beckett, the center is a work in progress.

"I think it will morph and change as everyone figures out what they need," she said.

Kelley Kearsley
Full Speed Ahead, and Right Now
The News Tribune, June 22, 2005

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