Featured Stories

Getting ready for humongous trains

Columbia County communities looking for ways to cope with more rail traffic, longer trains
by: Lona Pierce, A Portland Western Railroad locomotive crosses the Milton Creek bridge approaching Columbia Boulevard in St. Helens.

With the prospect of at least four unit trains (two each way) traveling the length of Columbia County every week, local residents have recently been paying a lot more attention to rail traffic rolling through their towns.

Cascade Grain will be receiving corn from the Midwest in 110-car unit trains every three and a half days to produce ethanol at Port Westward near Clatskanie (See March 12 Spotlight for full story). The very first full-length test train came through on Sunday, April 13. According to John Speight, vice president of marketing and sales at Portland and Western Railroad, the train turnaround time will be 32 hours maximum between Port Westward and the Vancouver, Wash., station. There is no precise schedule. Speight said the test train took a shade over eight minutes to pass a single point going through the city of St. Helens.

Many residents are worried that long trains might trap them on the wrong side of the tracks during an emergency. There are senior citizen facilities and schools that will be cut off from Highway 30 while the trains are traveling through, not to mention all the homes and businesses. The track has very few underpasses or overpasses for the length of the A line, also called the Astoria line, which runs generally along the Columbia River through Columbia County. Vehicle traffic must stop at all but one rail crossing on public roads when a train is coming through.

Only Columbia City has a bridge that passes over the tracks, on L Street. There are a handful of private driveways that have their own underpasses, as well. Those few privileged homeowners are unaffected by rail traffic, if you ignore the noise and vibration factors. Some of the busiest roads that cross the tracks, such as at Gable Road in St. Helens by Safeway and Wal-Mart, back up in all directions until the trains pass through. Safety arms and flashing lights are at major rail crossings.

Division Chief Ron Youngberg of Columbia River Fire and Rescue said they have a 'wait and see' attitude toward the 110-car unit trains. Unit trains are those that carry a single commodity from the point of origin. So far he never experienced a problem of being delayed when responding to an emergency call because of trains, Youngberg said, and he isn't expecting any. 'We have fire stations on both sides of the track,' he noted, and law enforcement personnel are scattered all over the county at any one time. There should always be someone able to answer an emergency on either side of the track.

Fire Chief Mike Greisen of Scappoose said trains have not been a problem. He has figured out that, at 10 miles per hour, the corn unit trains will be on the tracks through town for a total of approximately a half hour per week. 'We already have delays,' said Greisen, 'because we don't have enough resources.' Delays from a train on occasion will be nothing new.

When they get multiple emergency calls, which happen about 25 percent of the time, said Greisen, they may have to send personnel back from the first emergency to the station for more equipment. Response times can take 10 minutes longer during multiple emergencies.

Greisen has no plans to store emergency equipment on both sides of the track in Scappoose. The only time he sees potential for a blockage is if there is a vehicle accident at the intersection of Highway 30 and Crown Zellerbach Road. During such an event the fire department might move an emergency vehicle to the east side of the tracks in case a train comes.

Cascade Grain will get a heads-up from Portland and Western when a train is due to arrive at the plant in a few hours, but by then the train is well on its way from the P and W Vancouver station. Both Greisen and Youngberg said they have no plans at present to ask for notification from the railroad when a unit train is on the way.

Trains are limited to around 25 miles per hour on most of the track, and down to 10 miles per hour through Scappoose, St. Helens, and Rainier. Greisen said it will take about nine minutes for the 110-unit trains, about a mile long, to travel past any one point in town. Upgrades of $25 million to the tracks are coming soon, and a federal grant is helping to replace 40,000 railroad ties. Federal rail money is often distributed through congressional earmarks. Once an upgraded rail is laid, the time it takes a long unit train to pass any one point through the towns will be reduced to three and a half minutes. Long unit trains don't stop once they get started on the A line because there are no sidetracks large enough for them to pull over.

Speight said that Portland and Western has no plans to move freight trains through the county any faster than 25 miles per hour. It would be far too expensive to upgrade the rails for faster trains. The improvements to the track will be concentrated between Vancouver and Port Westward, since there is little traffic beyond that location.

The Cascade Grain unit trains are in addition to present rail traffic. According to Speight, 20,000-plus rail cars already use the A Line annually, with more than 8,000 cars alone carrying logs for Teevin Bros. Inc in Rainier. Trains also serve Boise, U.S. Gypsum, Wauna, Dyno Nobel, and other customers. Typical trains are 50 cars or less, with a few longer trains. Improved tracks will likely attract additional train-related business.

Government officials consider rails to be an important arm of transportation, along with public roads, airports, and the Columbia River. Each serves economic growth. As such, they want infrastructure to keep up with traffic, not only so things don't get bogged down or in poor shape, but for safety reasons, as well. Columbia County Commissioner Joe Corsiglia said that potential businesses go where the transportation system is good. Shortline companies help pay for rail improvements through taxes, fees and matching funds.

There is no regular train traffic past the Wauna mill at present, but additional trains to Tongue Point just east of Astoria may operate in the near future. Long-range possibilities may include a commuter train. The county is about ready to hire a consultant to finish its rail corridor safety study, and Scappoose completed their study in 2002.

In anticipation of increasing trains coming through, city administrators are working with Portland and Western Railroad and the Oregon Department of Transportation to try to solve problems related to rail traffic while still manageable. The biggest impediment is funding. While state and federal governments support rail improvements with grants and loans, towns affected by the trains won't likely be getting funding to build road overpasses for 20 years or more. Crossing Safety Manager Charles Kettenring of ODOT said the agency has no plans to fund overpasses in Columbia County. 'In a few months people probably won't even notice the unit trains,' he said. Still, the cities are planning for overpasses as train traffic grows.

Scappoose:

City Manager Jon Hanken said that the most likely places for an overpass would be at West Lane Road north of town, or at Johnson's Landing Road to the south. There simply is no room available closer in, such as the Havlik intersection in the works, because of the huge amount of land required to lay it out so a truck can cross. An overpass would cost $30-40 million.

St. Helens:

City Planner Skip Baker said 'The favorite spot proposed for an overpass is the end of West Street, hopping onto Pittsburg Road.' Baker said it would take up a huge amount of room, and estimates it would cost $10-20 million. The topography there, with a slight dip, is favorable. No money is being set aside for planning such a project.

Rainier:

City Administrator Lars Gare said that Rainier has little chance for an overpass because the city isn't very large. The track runs down the middle of A Street in one section of town, and a senior center, new homes, and businesses can be cut off from the highway. There is only one crossing with a safety arm. 'The city is having brainstorming meetings to find solutions on a whole bunch of issues,' said Gare. P and W is proposing the closing of multiple rail crossings on A Street in exchange for three additional safety arms, and the city would fund curbs and paving.

Since funding is not forthcoming anytime soon in Columbia County to make crossing the tracks easier, Corsiglia is promoting the idea of 'sink funds,' where ODOT annually sets aside a small percentage for overpass funding. Then, in 10 years or so the money will be available to at least start feasibility studies and engineering. 'We need to start preparing now for overpasses,' Corsiglia said. 'There is no reason ODOT can't do the studies, especially when you go down the Sunset Highway and see all kinds of overpasses, and sound-proofing and retaining walls. Years ago my dad -- when he was mayor - was pushing for an overpass. We need to push ODOT every shape, way, and form to make it happen.' Corsiglia added that residents can help with the effort by contacting public officials.