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Intermodal Train Service Delayed

by Matthew Weaver, Herald staff writer
Columbia Basin Herald, November 16, 2005

Area in 'limbo' while Burlington railroad sorts through issues

COLUMBIA BASIN -- Customers are ready to use the Port of Quincy's intermodal train system, but rail service difficulties have pushed its start date into the new year.

On behalf of the Central Washington Alliance for Rail Freight Transportation (CWARFT), Pat Boss sent letters last week to Sen. Patty Murray and Gov. Christine Gregoire, to express concerns about Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway's "recent decision to drop its dedicated refrigerated intermodal train service from Central Washington to the Puget Sound.

"With fuel prices being really high and (Snoqualmie) Pass being mostly closed, we had calculated that this was the year when intermodal service to the coast was going to really take off," Boss said in an interview last week. "All the signs were pointing that way."

Boss claimed that BNSF offered a service plan to the Port of Quincy which promised it would begin shipping containers from the port's intermodal facility -- conceived as a way to relieve strain on the roadways between the Columbia Basin and sea ports and to develop inland area ports to receive shipments from developed areas -- and disperse them from the inland when the port had commitments to ship 30 containers a week.

Those commitments were in place, Boss said, when the company informed the port that it would have to get back to them because of a problem within the system -- not enough engines or containers in the area. The intermodal facility broke ground in July 2004, and first shipments were originally estimated to take place earlier this year, but have not yet occurred.

Even though Burlington indicated that it might be willing to replace the dedicated refrigerated intermodal train service with a merchandise or manifest train, Boss said in his letter that CWARFT is concerned that the service would not be as consistent as an intermodal train.

"The timing's terrible; the holiday season is a time when a lot of produce moves (and) exports usually are higher because this is kind of the new shipping season," Boss said. "It's a lot harder to get trucks because a lot of people are shipping, and then you've got the issue of the passes being a little bit uncertain because of the rock slides. So it would have been fantastic, had the service been put into effect like the railroad had promised."

Now shippers and processors not only have to find trucks, but also figure out if they can get over the pass in a timely manner, Boss said.

"We believe the state needs to intervene and urge the railroad to strongly reconsider putting an intermodal program in central Washington again," he said.

Boss added that the area would be placed in a long-term awkward economic situation if the railroad does not commit to stopping in Grant County, whether heading east or west.

"With Grant County being the biggest agricultural county in the state, and one of the biggest export counties, it's silly that we can't have consistent dedicated intermodal service," he said.

Boss met with the vice president of Burlington in Anaheim, Calif., on Monday and called it a "good news, bad news" meeting. The railroad is probably not going to be able to offer any service by the end of the year, and is possibly offering some sort of service early next year, although they wouldn't say what kind, he reported.

"Unfortunately for Quincy and Grant County, we're in limbo because all the new locomotives they're bringing on line are going back east," he said.

While Burlington is a big railroad, and the county a big agricultural production area, Boss said that the railroad sees Grant County as a small area on their radar screen.

At issue, he said, is whether the railroad will pass through the state or make a commitment to pick up shipments in places like Quincy or Wenatchee and take them to the ports of Tacoma or Seattle.

"If they're not going to make a commitment, then I guess we're going to have to really rethink what we're doing for transportation from eastern Washington to western Washington, (and) widen freeways to six or seven lanes, because there's going to be thousands of trucks on the road," Boss said. "The county and central Washington as a whole needs to really be working with the governor's office and legislators to emphasize that it's critical for our economic development and our ability to create jobs that we have good inland rail service, to take our products from the county to the ports."

"BNSF has not offered dedicated intermodal service for this market," said Burlington spokesman Gus Melonas of the area. "However, we are further discussing this with management and associated parties at this point, so the matter is under further review."

"It'll work itself out eventually, but we have customers ready to go right now," Port of Quincy commissioner Patric Connelly said, noting that other areas are in the same situation. "We can't offer them a train. The railroad's not giving anything up right at the moment. Hopefully, it'll get itself turned around pretty quickly, but we don't have any ideas of when yet."

Art Scheunemann, senior vice president for business development at Northwest Container, operator of the Quincy intermodal facility, said that his company has a seven-year agreement with Burlington Northern to provide service, part of which is development of a dedicated service.

Burlington is in the process of finalizing a service plan, Scheunemann said.

"We're a little bit behind the schedule we had originally set, but still moving forward," he said, noting that hopes were for the intermodal to get off the ground by Dec. 7, but he doesn't think that's going to happen at this point.

The concern is mainly to get the service plan completed, so service and business can begin at the intermodal facility, Scheunemann continued.

"Obviously we need a train to do that," he said, adding that the service plan also has to meet Burlington Northern's needs as well. "We want to get it right from the beginning; we don't want to go in fits and starts. It's imminent; there's no question about that."

Matthew Weaver, Herald staff writer
Intermodal Train Service Delayed
Columbia Basin Herald, November 16, 2005

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