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Rail Cargo Business Chugs Along at Port

by Jim Szymanski
The Olympian, February 27, 2005

Number of cars on the rise since 2002; expansion planned

Army vehicles are loaded on rail cars at the Port of Olympia. Increasing the rail capacity to handle additional military and private shipping needs is a major focus for port officials. (Olympian file photo) OLYMPIA -- Train cars have become far more frequent at the Port of Olympia. Because of that, port officials will install new rails at the port this year and plan longer-range expansion that could help the port increase its cargo volume.

There has been a fivefold increase in the number of rail cars that have passed through the port since 2002, said Jim Amador, the marine terminal director.

In 2002, 168 cars came through the port. It increased to 631 in 2003 and 876 last year, Amador said.

The return of Army shipments related to the Iraq War accounted for about 17 percent of rail volume, Amador said. The Army moves tanks and other tracked vehicles by rail from ships to military installations.

"The increase in rail car use is mostly due to general cargo," Amador said. The bulk of the nonmilitary use of rail is in the port's handling of aluminum deliveries, he said.

As business has increased, customers have been asking for more rail capacity, Amador said.

In response, the port is spending $1.4 million this year to add a rail line on its docks closer to where ships berth.

The port expects the work to be completed by fall.

Besides military business, the port moves timber, aluminum, garnet, glass and steel and has experimented with limestone shipments.

With more rail capacity, the port could recruit new types of cargo, Amador said.

Amador thinks the port might be able to compete in transporting transformers for power projects or moving parts in the construction of refineries.

The use of rail cars is growing again this year.

Amador predicts that up to 1,000 rail cars could pass through the port this year.

The growth will lengthen the trains that move through the city, he said.

Most trains that come through the port and pass through the city are short, averaging three cars. In the future, the average train would be about seven cars.

So far, at least, the prospect of longer trains does not concern city officials, who must consider the response times of fire trucks and ambulances. The trains cross streets as they pass through the city.

"We don't see that the growth will create substantially more delay," said Randy Wesselman, the city's transportation engineering and planning supervisor in the Public Works Department.

The Tri-City & Olympia Railroad can change the times it moves cargo if train length becomes a traffic issue, Chief Executive Officer Randy Peterson said.

Beyond putting a new rail line on the dock, Amador envisions expanding rails in the port's loading yard.

Last week, port officials met with U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., to request $2.3 million to build a staging area to park and load train cars. That project is scheduled for next year if funding is available.

Aiming for a niche

The rail expansion plans fit the port's strategy to become a niche player among Puget Sound ports. The larger Seattle and Tacoma ports are specializing in moving containers.

But at 60 acres, Olympia's port is too small for container terminals, Amador said.

With better rail capability, the port could attract more general cargo business, he argues.

"Once you become known, the market will come to you," Amador said.

An added benefit is that more trains mean fewer trucks using city streets.

Each rail car has the potential to remove the need for three trucks at the port, Amador said.

Port commissioners generally support the rail expansion plan.

The new rail lines might be a link to increasing port business, Commissioner Steve Pottle said during the meeting with Murray.

"The bottom line here is jobs and economic development," he said.

Expanded rail capacity gives the port a chance to grow, added Commissioner Bob Van Schoorl.

"Our contacts in the market tell us there is a need for this," Van Schoorl said. "It's another tool in our tool kit to make things better at the port."

Murray warned port officials that federal funds for rail expansion would be hard to come by this year.

A decision on the port's request is expected from Congress by fall.

Meanwhile, the port's marine terminal business is growing.

One way to measure the increase is through the number of hours dockworkers logged last year.

Until 2003, the busiest recent year for dockworkers at the port was 1997. That was the last year a regular, scheduled port shipper -- Sunmar -- was visiting Olympia. In that year, dockworkers logged 54,660 hours at the port.

Since Sunmar left the port in 1998, ships that visit have not done so on a predetermined schedule, but rather as the market demands.

After Sunmar left, the number of longshore hours paid by the port dropped until last year, when dockworkers logged 63,223 hours.

Rail cars using the Port of Olympia 2002: 168
2003: 631
2004: 876
Source: Port of Olympia

Jim Szymanski
Rail Cargo Business Chugs Along at Port
The Olympian, February 27, 2005

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