OLYMPIA — Washington has been very proactive at addressing infrastructure problems and keeping both people and freight moving across the state, according to French Thompson, general director for public and private infrastructure development for the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad.
“We look to Washington, you’ve done such a great job of not sitting back,” Thompson said during an online panel discussion on keeping freight moving across the state on Tuesday organized by the Washington Council on International Trade. “They make investments on their own to tackle the projects that need to be built.”
Thompson, who spoke along with Sen. Marko Liias, D-Everett, and Washington State Secretary of Transportation Roger Millar during the 90-minute discussion, said that while the BNSF railroad works with states across its coverage area, as well as the federal government to secure funding for necessary track, bridge and tunnel improvement, legislators and officials in Washington do a better job than most of anticipating the state’s future needs.
“Getting ahead of projects before failure, and what are the next projects needed over five-to-ten years, and then leveraging the federal funding to make that happen,” Thompson said.
“In our state, we’re doing a better job of getting ahead rather than waiting for failure,” Liias added. “We’re trying to stay ahead of the curve.”
With roughly 32,500 miles of track across 28 states, the BNSF is one of the largest freight railroads in North America. The BNSF operates the freight line from Spokane to Bellingham that winds through Ephrata and Quincy.
Millar said the greatest challenge faced by freight supply chains is not building new infrastructure, or even repairing or replacing older infrastructure, but linking current management systems together and getting them talking to each other in order to improve the current system.
According to Millar, the last two years of COVID-19 have strained both the U.S. and global supply chains, and the different tracking systems used by ocean carriers, port operators, trucking companies, warehouse owners and railroads need to be able to talk to each other better so shippers know where their goods are.
“The company that owns the boat knows where the containers are, but they may not share that information,” Millar said. “That inefficiency costs us time and money, and should have been solved years ago.”
Thompson agreed, and noted that current inefficiencies in port operations — most ports do not operate around the clock — while locomotives pull mile-long unit trains every hour of the day.
“The BNSF is a 24/7 business, but ports and distribution centers may not be. A box may be ready to go,”Thompson said, referring to a shipping container, “but no one is ready to pick it up.”
Thompson said that problem has an downstream effect across the transportation network, and it may be necessary to create some excess hauling and carrying capacity to smooth it out.
Millar advocated for the creation of more truck stops and other safe places for truckers to park and rest, noting that addition of parking spaces from large semi-tractor trailer trucks has not kept up with demand.
“The Department of Transportation is part of the solution,” he said. “I’m not sure public facilities are the solution, but we need more truck stops.”
Millar also called for the creation of more intermodal transportation facilities in Eastern Washington similar to the inter model facility, noting places outside Puget Sound where trucks can load and unload containers can take a load off the port, road and rail facilities in Seattle and Tacoma.
The Port of Quincy owns and operates a small intermodal center, focused primarily on loading refrigerated containers full of processed potato products.
Finally, Millar and Thompson see a future for electric powered trucks and even train locomotives, though not hauling freight long distances. At least not yet.
“We’ve got a pilot project with a locomotive manufacturer regarding fuel cells, and we’re seeing a lot of interest in switch engines in yards, where there’s a lot of idling,” Thompson said.
Railroads are very efficient hauling freight, Thompson added, but right now, it takes the kind of power that can only be generated by a Diesel engine to pull a unit train up and down the Rockies and the Cascades.