The Puget Sound ports are only as strong as the railroads that link them to the rest of the country, as well as to the interior of Washington. Tacoma — “where the rails meet the sails” — won the first transcontinental railroad, the Northern Pacific. Then Seattle got the Great Northern. Eventually the Union Pacific and Milwaukee Road arrived, too. Now, after decades of consolidation, the main roads are the Burlington Northern Santa Fe and the UP.
The ports of LA and Long Beach enjoy straight-shot rail service to the heart of America, especially with the old Santa Fe double-track “Transcon” to Chicago and the former Southern Pacific Sunset Route to Texas and New Orleans. The latter is also being double-tracked. The ports have invested heavily in infrastructure, including the 20-mile underground Alameda Corridor, which cut congestion near the ports. Prince Rupert, B.C., the ascendant North America container port, is served by the Canadian National, which also offers direct service to the American Midwest. CN also bought the Elgin, Joliet and Eastern to speed its trains around the Chicago bottleneck.
Things are more complicated here. BNSF’s former Great Northern route runs up from Seattle to Everett before turning east to Chicago. It’s a busy, high-capacity line, but is prone to mudslides in the region. The old NP line out of Tacoma is considered a secondary route by BNSF. Thus, Stampede Tunnel can’t accommodate double-stack containers (Cascade Tunnel on the GN can). UP from Seattle and Tacoma goes to the heartland via Utah and Nebraska. Locally, dockside rail is an advantage for Tacoma.
Railroads will become even more important to moving cargo in the years ahead: They’re more efficient and energy effective. Washington’s challenge is to keep up with the competition in ensuring enough capacity to move cargo to and from the ports. It won’t be done with private sector investment alone, even though Uncle Warren now owns BNSF and can freely invest (remember, the BNSF also owns the speedy Transcon). So state investment and winning federal dollars — as well as constant focus — will be necessary, too. Do we need a national infrastructure bank to help? Oh, yeah.
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Today’s Econ Haiku:
As the trees leaf out
A moment of clarity
Is the euro dead?