BNSF downplays traffic

BNSF Railway's been quiet about a growing concern as coal companies look to tap much more of southeastern Montana's and northeast Wyoming's large coal deposits: the increased train traffic to get the coal to market.

But that changed somewhat last week when BNSF Chairman and CEO Matthew Rose acknowledged that his company owes citizens who are potentially affected by hauling coal to West Coast coal export terminals "more information."

It won't be as bad as prognosticators think, Rose said. The estimates of between 60 to 100 trains a day passing through Montana and the Northwest? "I promise you, that's nowhere in the realm of seriousness. It's not realistic," he told The Columbian newspaper of Vancouver, Wash.

Rose said that's because he expects that only "maybe three" of six proposed coal export terminals in the Pacific Northwest will be built, limiting BNSF's hauling to between 50 and 100 million tons annually.

However, just one export terminal in Longview, Wash., proposed by Millenium Bulk Logistics, would have an export capacity of 44 million tons. Arch Coal, the coal giant that last month submitted a permit application to mine a 1.5 billion-ton deposit in southeastern Montana's Otter Creek Valley, owns a 38 percent stake in the proposed Longview terminal. Another proposed terminal, near Bellingham, Wash., backed by Peabody Energy, the largest coal company in the world, could export 60 million tons a year.

University of Montana economist Tom Power says he believes BNSF is underestimating potential train traffic, because "they don't want to scare communities... All along they've been saying, 'No, no, no. There won't be a significant impact. We have all of this under control.' But the level of exports that [Rose] was talking about was so small that it wouldn't even take one of these proposed coal ports."

Power also says Rose underestimates the corresponding train traffic by not taking into account the trains' return trips.

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