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Originally published Saturday, September 17, 2011 at 9:01 PM

BNSF Railway CEO says future to bring more hiring in NW

BNSF Railway CEO Matt Rose was in Seattle to speak at the American Association of Port Authorities convention, and sat down to answer a few questions about regional issues.

Times transportation reporter

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There will be 350 high-wage, blue-collar jobs available in the Northwest in the next year, working on the railroad.

BNSF Railway needs locomotive engineers, trackway-maintenance workers and mechanics, CEO Matt Rose said this past week.

He expects retirements soon among a workforce whose average age is 51. Not only that, he anticipates population growth, consumer demand and, therefore, freight traffic.

Rose, 52, was in Seattle to speak at the American Association of Port Authorities convention. Freight transport in the U.S. has the advantage of efficient highways and rail, so shipping requires a relatively low 8 percent of gross domestic product, he said.

"Our supply chain is a weapon of mass competitiveness," he said in a luncheon speech. The question is whether the U.S. will invest in neglected infrastructure, or slip while China becomes more nimble and Canada equips its seaports in Vancouver and Prince Rupert, B.C., to feed a refurbished national railway.

Rose seemed annoyed by a crowd of 300 environmentalists, workers, unionists and clergy who rallied outside the Westin Hotel on behalf of workers and environmental causes.

"I just thought they would be protesting that we should be building more infrastructure so they can have more jobs," he told his audience. BNSF Railway operates throughout the West. It owns the mainline along Puget Sound that's shared by freight, passenger and transit trains. The corporation says it did $17 billion in business last year with more than 40,000 employees. Rose earned $15.6 million in total compensation in 2008, mostly in stock and stock options.

While he was in town, he sat down with The Seattle Times to talk about regional issues. Some highlights:

Hiring

"Rail wages, I think, are in the top 2 percent of all blue-collar wages," Rose said.

As of Friday, job listings on the BNSF website included 12 conductor-trainees, hired in Pasco at $41,000 to start, and average pay $68,000. Most jobs are union. At the top, locomotive engineers' pay ranges from $80,000 to $130,000, if applicants pass tests, interviews and finish 26 weeks of training, he said.

Coal exports

Rose said he supports SSA Marine's proposed coal-export terminal at Cherry Point, Whatcom County, because of the jobs it would create for dockworkers, rail workers and construction workers — while improving the balance of trade.

The proposal, which includes sending up to 18 full and returning coal trains a day through Western Washington, has been questioned by people who fear damage to communities along the way, or who don't want the state to be an enabler for climate change. TransAlta is phasing out this state's only coal-fired power plant, at Centralia, by 2025.

"I'm not going to get into the global warming debate," Rose said. He later declined a follow-up question about whether he believes global warming is a serious threat.

"Here's what I will say about it. Coal is going to be shipped. We already ship 100 million tons, something that you, I assume, didn't know, and most people in this country don't know. If the coal doesn't come from this country, it's going to come from Indonesia, it's going to come from South America.... So If anybody thinks we're not going to permit a coal terminal and that that's going to solve China from burning coal, I don't think they understand how global logistics markets work."

Stampede Pass

BNSF reopened the mountain route in 1996, and currently runs limited local trains. It is finishing $26 million in track upgrades, including rail ties and surfacing, to prepare for cross-state freight trains this fall.

"As there are more grain exports wanting to come out to the West Coast; Stampede will be a part of that," Rose said.

But the pass tunnel is too low for double-stacked container trains. Someday, not in the foreseeable future, BNSF will add overhead space at a cost of $30 million to $40 million, Rose said. "Hindsight being 20-20, I wish we would have crowncut that ... when we first opened it," he said.

Crash prevention

The night of Nov. 11, 1993, two freight trains crashed head-on near Longview, prompting the National Transportation Safety Board to chastise the rail industry and federal regulators for foot-dragging on technology first proposed in 1967. A satellite-based network, to stop trains that are getting close enough to collide, is mandated by the federal government by 2015.

"We're going to have positive train control on our railroad by 2015, and you know, the horrific accident in Kelso, Washington, that claimed five lives is the reason," he said.

"On the one hand, you can say this has taken 19 years to implement, it will end up taking 22 years. On the other hand, this will be the biggest change in the railroad industry that we've seen since the advent of steam-to-diesel locomotive."

Truckers

Rose said he didn't have local knowledge to judge whether Port of Seattle short-haul truckers, who average around $28,000 a year, are paid enough.

Many of them shuttle containers one mile between the docks and a BNSF Railway yard.

What did make a lasting impression was the crowded traffic where trucks and trains meet the waterfront.

"I went down to the docks today, early ... I got off a bridge, and I went right in down there. I don't know if there was a wreck or not — but there was a lot of congestion. We've got to find a way to plan to expand, to be able to allow freight and communities to harmonize, as I call it."

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com

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