Since 1883, when the burgeoning City of Tacoma became the western terminus of the first transcontinental railroad to reach Puget Sound, the fortunes of the city and its harbor have been inextricably linked to the railroads.
In that year, the old Northern Pacific completed a line that would open the way for trains that whisked tea and Asian silk from the docks of Tacoma to merchants and wedding dressmakers in New York City. Tacoma was the city “where the rails meet the sails,” says Tacoma waterfront historian Ron Magden.
Silk and tea are no longer dominant imports, and the railroads have gone through an untold number of business cycles and mergers. At the same time, the Pacific Northwest has experienced extraordinary growth.
But on Commencement Bay, the Port and the railroads are still the driving forces of a maritime economic engine that produces tens of thousands of jobs while serving commerce from Western Washington to the East Coast of the United States.
“It’s been quite a marriage,” Magden said of the relationship between the Port and the railroads. “In all the history between them, there’s never been a fundamental breakdown ’ they’ve always resolved their differences. The Port of Tacoma prospers today because of its rail road system and its land for growth.”
Today, two mainline railroads serve Tacoma. They are the BNSF Railway ’ successor to the Northern Pacific ’ and the Union Pacific Railroad (UP). Together, those two current-day mainline railroads carry about 70 percent of the Port’s inbound containerized cargo eastward toward the major markets of the Midwest and East Coast.
The Port of Tacoma has been working for the last 30 years building a niche in the business of intermodal cargo. Maximizing the advantage of its rail connections, more than 25 years ago, the Port of Tacoma was the first on the West Coast with a true on-dock intermodal rail yard, enabling a quick transfer of containers from ships to rail cars. Today, the Port has four on-dock intermodal yards and will have a fifth with completion of a new terminal for NYK Line in mid-2012.
“The railroads have made a commitment to work with us and grow with us as we expand,” said Mike Reilly, the Port’s Director of Intermodal Business. The Port currently handles about two million 20-foot container equivalent units (teus) annually, a number which is expected to grow to 3.8 million teus by 2010. As total cargo movement grows, the Port expects the percentage of intermodal to remain consistent.
“We can handle the business through expansion and adding new terminal space,” Reilly said, noting that total container traffic is projected to expand by 14.7 percent per year through 2012.
Larry Gerek, Union Pacific’s Senior Business Director for Intermodal Market Development, is the commercial liaison between his company and West Coast ports. He jokes that Jeannie Beckett, the Port’s Senior Director for Inland Transportation, who oversees relationships with the railroads, “has no problem telling people that she has me on a speed-dial.”
“Working with the Port of Tacoma has been extremely positive,” Gerek said. “The folks at the Port have gone above and beyond to try to make sure we have the correct information and insights to make good decisions and support growth in the Pacific Northwest.”
As an example of how working together can help lead to tangible improvements, Gerek pointed to the Port’s 2005 work on Bullfrog Junction, where the Port’s rail network joins the main lines. Part of a $10.6 million rail upgrade project, the project relieved concerns about future congestion and improved throughput at the key access point.
“They’ve also offered up assistance in our efforts to expand capacity,” Gerek said. “They have offered their expertise in areas that have unique local requirements, such as environmental mitigation and permitting. They have really stepped up to offer that assistance to the Union Pacific.”
Then there’s the “Business Exchange” program, in which the mainline railroads, the Port and Tacoma Rail, the short-line