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Trains are not the issue

Nov 1, 2013 - By Steven R. Peck

Objectors to shipping Wyoming coal to the Pacific ports need a better argument

The news these days is full of updates on the decline in the great Wyoming coal industry. We published an update on this issue just yesterday.

As the industry struggles to adjust to changing market conditions, it is hoped that foreign markets for Wyoming coal can be developed more fully. Part of that planning is the development of increased coal shipping capacity from Pacific Ocean ports in the Pacific Northwest.

Coal customers in China and elsewhere in Asia are interested in Wyoming's relatively low-cost, high-energy coal. To get it there by ship, the coal first must be transported to the northwest ports by train from Wyoming.

Protesters in Canada and the State of Washington have raised objections to the prospect of Wyoming coal trains hauling increased amounts of coal to the Northwest.

These protesters are speaking from ignorance -- or worse, knowingly misleading an uninformed public in that part of the country.

There is no doubt that the coal industry in this country, including Wyoming, has its problems. But the trains that carry coal from Wyoming to parts far and wide is not one of them.

The late Roy Peck, who with brother Bob was the Ranger's founding publisher 65 years ago, played a principal role in the development of the "unit train" concept in Wyoming while he was working in state government in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He led a planning and research effort that determined that sending long freight trains full of coal out of Wyoming and then return empty cars back to Wyoming could be a profitable enterprise for railroads.

Before that, the notion of transporting an empty freight train across hundreds of miles was unheard of in the rail industry, and there was deep resistance to it. Fast-forward 40 years, and the Wyoming unit trains have proved themselves to be safe and efficient. They are one of the great, innovative success stories in the history of Wyoming industry.

A chief complaint being raised against Wyoming coal trains in the Northwest is safety and cleanliness. Again, this is a position that is either ignorant or knowingly misleading. The coal trains are model freight haulers, and in one respect they actually are of lesser pollution concern in the event of a derailment, because on their return trip to Wyoming they are empty. This cuts the contamination risk from a spill in half -- not that spilling coal on the ground is a particularly hazardous predicament in the first place.

It is unclear whether business conditions and regional objections will be minimized to the point that sending Wyoming coal to the Pacific Northwest from Wyoming will be a feasible plan.

But if objecting to the safety of the unit train is the best argument they've got up there, then the chances for a successful expansion of Wyoming's coal industry look pretty good.

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MAIL SUBSCRIBERS: Thursday's edition of The Ranger was delivered to the Riverton post office at 3:25 p.m., in time to meet the postal deadline for next-day mail delivery.

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