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Eastside rail line: Can suburbia deal with a freight train?

Freight trains are better for the environment than big trucks that haul goods, so why are so many groups opposed to shipping freight along a track into Redmond?

A freight car sits on a spur just off the main line near downtown Bellevue.

A freight car sits on a spur just off the main line near downtown Bellevue. Eastside Rail Now!

Parties as diverse as the city of Redmond and the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties remain locked in a struggle over the fate of the former BNSF rail line through Seattle's eastern suburbs. At the heart of the brouhaha — and well below its surface — lies the conundrum of interest groups failing to find common ground in spite of what would seem to be shared environmental goals.

The so-called Eastside line runs from Snohomish to Renton, with a seven-mile spur veering off from Woodinville to Redmond. The BNSF Railway divested itself of all but the southernmost five miles of the line in 2009, conveying the remainder in two separate transactions to the Port of Seattle, as a “railbanked” line — that is, one given over to other interim uses but reserved under federal law for the restoration of freight service should that become economically viable again.

The port sold 3.9 miles of the Redmond spur to the city of Redmond for $10 million last June and, according to a spokeswoman, has reached agreement with King County to sell most of the remaining right-of-way within the county for $26 million. However, the centerpiece of the original deal — the trail easement the county has purchased from the port on almost all of the line within the county — has yet to be translated into a trail. Among other things, the county has yet to corral the money to finance the undertaking. The vision first articulated in 2006 by then-King County Executive Ron Sims, to build “the granddaddy of all trails” on the route, thus has many a mile to go.

Complicating the matter further is a class-action lawsuit filed against the port last month on behalf of the port district's taxpayers. The suit alleges that the port exceeded its legal authority in purchasing the northern part of the line, the Redmond spur included. If that suit succeeds, ownership of about 22 miles of the line will revert to BNSF.

A freight railroad, GNP Rly, currently runs trains on the northern end of the line, between Snohomish and Woodinville, and expects to launch an excursion train between a Woodinville winery and Snohomish in June. It has announced ambitious plans to reintroduce freight service on the entire corridor “portion-by-portion, on our schedule, as finances and events would allow” and “to provide common carrier, 'commuter' service throughout the corridor,” in the words of president Tom Payne.

More immediately, GNP wishes to expand its freight operation to deliver a small amount of freight — well under one carload a day — to businesses along the Redmond spur. It petitioned the federal Surface Transportation Board (STB) in August to acquire common-carrier operating rights on the entire spur.

In response, the various litigants have lined up for and against such a use of the dormant rail infrastructure — at a time when concern over carbon emissions has focused attention on the environmental advantages of rail transportation. A freight locomotive's fuel efficiency, per ton-mile moved, is typically three to four times that of a tractor-trailer.

The STB case has thus become a testing ground. In an unusual move, the board's original railbanking decision, delivered in 2009, extended the right to restart freight service on the line not to the railroad — BNSF — as the board typically does, but to King County, the foreseen trail operator, which has no interest in running a freight railroad. The decision found, however, that the unusual arrangement “would not preclude any other service provider from seeking Board authorization to restore active rail service.” GNP is now seeking to turn that finding into a business reality.

King County, however, is not prepared to abide the threat to its restart right. The city of Redmond, the port and Sound Transit have joined in, buttressing the county's opposition to the petition.

So why do institutions here in the Emerald City and the Evergreen State find a freight train, for all its carbon efficiency, anathema? Redmond mayor John Marchione, whose city has spent $85,000 fighting the GNP's plans, says simply that he is not OK with freight trains coming into downtown Redmond.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Jan 20, 4:18 a.m. Inappropriate

Great piece C.B. That ties a lot of loose strings together in a ball for me.
To add to the motivation of some of the parties involved, keep in mind many of these motivations have been running on 'momentum' from prior leaders.
Mayor Norm Rice pushed hard for light rail to go from the downtown tunnel, under Capital Hill, then on to U-Dist and Northgate back in 1993. Here we are nearly 20 years later, and the tunneling machines are just arriving. Northgate is now pushed back to 2021 at best. That alone is 'sucking' mega billions from any other public or private transportation investment in the region.
Exec Sims pushed hard for Light Rail through the Rainier Valley, and a tunnel under Beacon Hill. That added years to the project, and 'sucked' an extra billion out, while slowing the trip to the airport and beyond. Ridership is now suffering as the result of the MLK Do-Over. Mr. Sims also was a driving force behind purchasing the Eastside rail, under the banner of a grand bike/ped pathway. Any WSDOT plans or Sound Transit plans for dealing with chronic congestion along I-405 were influenced by this momentum.
Sound Transit has been working under a 'mandate of the people' to push Light Rail across I-90, and out to Redmond, and have little interest in pursuing any other options that interfere with that direction. It's no wonder they are not interested in the Eastside Corridor. Plus the $50 Mil, set aside for anything that happens there can be used to make up for existing massive shortfalls in funding THEIR PROJECT.
With so many past promises, deals, and understandings hanging around in all the government closets, is it any wonder that anything that even feels foreign is dealt with like the plaque, by our governing bodies immune system?

007

Posted Thu, Jan 20, 7:06 a.m. Inappropriate

The author says "A freight locomotive's fuel efficiency, per ton-mile moved, is typically three to four times that of a tractor-trailer." That's true for an intercity train hauling freight on the main line. But I have to wonder if the same holds true for a switch engine shuttling one or two freight cars up and down a low-speed branch line.

Posted Thu, Jan 20, 7:24 a.m. Inappropriate

R.- a valid concern if the railcar were to be moved only from one end of the branch to the other (probably not a very likely scenario). But, if it were moved to a transfer point, then added to a long mainline freight train going cross-state or cross-country, that would likely make up for any inefficiency of moving it on or off the branch.

alally

Posted Thu, Jan 20, 7:39 a.m. Inappropriate

Excellent Journalism! Nicely Written.

Posted Thu, Jan 20, 7:41 a.m. Inappropriate

Thanks, alally, good observation. Being from Beacon Hill, I know from experience that freight locomotives are the only land-based transportation still spewing visible, and fragrant, smoke into the atmosphere. I guess railroads hold so much power they are kept exempt from the clean-air regs that apply to all other modes.

Posted Thu, Jan 20, 8:57 a.m. Inappropriate

This article fails to mention that historically these local rail spur companies have been straw dogs for the adjacent property owners who fear bicycle traffic would imped their business. The Salmon Bay Gravel company and the line next to them come to mind, as well as the line abandoned along the East shore of Lake Samamish.

Also the intent is to buy the land for use as a rail line, run it for a year or two, declare that it is unprofitable and then sell the land piecemeal to the adjacent property owners. Thus breaking up connected land from ever being truly part of the rail system again.

I'm all for real rail access, but lets get real here, two freight cars a day is hardly worth the land use that the rail line takes up. Where as a bicycle trail it could easily see 100 bicycle riders a day.

GaryP

Posted Thu, Jan 20, 9:18 a.m. Inappropriate

Freight trains are great. But:

1. With a large train, the cargo weight vs. train weight can be very efficient. With only one or two cargo cars, most of the weight is the locomotive, which is inefficient per ton moved. You also get none of the labor efficiencies that trains normally provide, and you still have the loud dinging at crossings and train horns that can wake the dead.

2. Even with many times the projected freight use, it's hard to imagine the environmental benefits being comparable to a bike/pedestrian trail. A flat, safe route through town, getting close to central Bellevue and central Kirkland, would be very popular for commuting. It would also connect to the 520 trail...the sort of connection that would make both trails more popular. Plus there's the exercise/recreation element.

mhays

Posted Thu, Jan 20, 9:21 a.m. Inappropriate

PS, GaryP, I'd multiply that bike trail figure many times over. On both weekends and weekdays the Sammamish Trail, for example, has a pretty good stream of people unless the weather is particularly bad.

mhays

Posted Thu, Jan 20, 4:36 p.m. Inappropriate

#1 - This is a nice piece of real journalism, C.B.

#2 - Given GNP has ALWAYS supported rail simultaneously with a trail, what is King County's problem given they have no money to either acquire the land for $26.5M nor develop a trail for decades to come? Aren't there already two trails along the Snohomish River that both start and end crossing the railroad? The departing Cascade Bicycle Club executive, Chuck Ayers, and his politico, David Hiller would only meet once to discuss the situation. The ONLY solution for those two is a 29' wide trail, including lanes for high-speed bikes - never ever any rail.

#3 - GNP does not have to bring freight trains into downtown Redmond. The mayor and staff already had other plans and only pretended to consider GNP's proposal for excursion trains. Political momentum built up over the years is not "open to listen" or see outside their blinders.

#4 - Go look at the exhaust of the locomotive in Woodinville. There is no black or gray smoke. You can see a lot more coming out of the semi-trucks running through Redmond. We talk about being green as people sit idling in their SUV's and cars waiting for their children to get out of school, at the store, or in traffic. The opportunity to take THOUSANDS of dump trucks with trailers and semi-trucks off of our roads clearly benefits the environment and traffic congestion. Do we want to be more green or don't we?

#5 - If moving freight by rail was not more economical, then companies would not use it. Since Keith Ervin at the Seattle Times wrote his article about the reactivation in early September, freight shippers have been calling GNP for service. Weyerhaeuser did today! Freight volumes in three years could easily be 10x what they are today. Freight by rail works.

#6 - The politico's talk about the dire position funding transportation projects is in. They even talk about the "need for public private partnerships." But the first time the opportunity comes to their door, the private party becomes "evil" somehow. Please note how all the spokes people avoided answering the questions directly. Typical, that's what they get paid for.

#7 - "It’s the public that has rights to this corridor, not GNP. It was not the goal to have it available for a private operator to run for private profit.” - Not exactly. What the Port purchased from BNSF was a federally regulated "railbanked" railroad with "interim trail use" that can be federally "reactivated" for freight use. No business will last long without a profit. That would be like spending more at home on your credit card than you earn. Profit is not evil, and railroads have an annual target rate set by the STB, presently around 10-11%. If a railroad can do the work for 1/3 the public cost in 1/3 the time, we all win. That is the reality the bureaucracies don't want us to know.

What were the 70's bumper stickers?
- "Question Assumptions" and
- "Don't Trust Authority"

The Eastside Rail Corridor is a golden opportunity for "wins" on so many fronts if just we keep asking the questions and don't take B.S. for an answer.

D.Engle

Posted Thu, Jan 20, 5:40 p.m. Inappropriate

Weyerhaeuser? Give me a break. That company is dedicated to cutting down it's forest and coverting the land via it's Quadrant house building company into suburban sprawl. What the heck would they haul for the next twenty years on this line? Nothing.

Thousands of dump trucks? Going from where to where? The only use I can see would be to haul garbage down to the Columbia, but the line has been broken by 405 and prior to that happening there was hardly any freight traffic on this line.

If it was so profitable to run the line as a rail line, why did BNSF abandon it? It's because it isn't profitable that's why. BNSF never gave anybody anything that was worth more than they paid for it.

GaryP

Posted Thu, Jan 20, 6:56 p.m. Inappropriate

Gary P,

BNSF gave up the line because they are only interested in point to point intermodal as a business plan. That is why WSDOT has the grain train in Eastern Washington, to save roads. Safeway used to have 10 to 30 carloads a week delivered. Prior to the line being broken at 405 there were three trains a week. Think of the commuter possibilities, from Monroe to Bellevue, taking cars off 522. Why is everybody afraid of rail and freight? Rail to a concrete plant makes sense as it remove all the aggregate trucks from the highway, leaving only the barrel trucks for delivery. I share property lines with the BNSF on their Stampede Subdivision. Having them for a neighbor is much better than having a house behind me. I understand now why the East Lake Sammamish folks fought the trail for so many years. A railroad is a much better neighbor.

Posted Fri, Jan 21, 1:24 a.m. Inappropriate

Someday, hopefully before the oil entirely runs out, we'll need to bring back yet more of these abandoned lines, like the former Milwaukee Road (it was even electrified,) route over Snoqualmie, which is also a (very nice) bike trail apart from its strange monicker of "John Wayne Trail" (don't ask...)

Obviously, no one would want to lose the bike trail. It might be difficult to have both trail and rail on that route. But hey, by that time there just won't be that many trucks left on I-90, so biking it won't be so bad, if the potholes can be avoided.

Posted Fri, Jan 21, 8:19 a.m. Inappropriate

"having a freight train run in your backyard is not acceptable for downtown residents"

But the 4 semi trucks that each railcar replaces IS acceptable. Mm, ok.

"I guess railroads hold so much power they are kept exempt from the clean-air regs that apply to all other modes."

Entirely incorrect. http://www.dieselnet.com/standards/us/loco.php

It is true that older locomotives can be grandfathered in, just as the government doesn't force you to scrap your older car. But even the visible emissions of older locomotives are far exceeded by the equivalent number of semi trucks carrying the equivalent tonnage (railcars now carry 100-120 tons EACH). And the government-mandated low-sulfur diesel fuel has improved the emissions of all diesel engines.

MagBill

Posted Fri, Jan 21, 10:02 a.m. Inappropriate

Typical NIMBYs who allege that they're environmentally friendly. What a joke. People, we need to start thinking decades in advance instead of just years. The Eastside will continue to grow and fill in and our current rubber-tire transportation will be entirely inadequate. At some point, that rail line will become a real asset. Granted, one locomotive and one car certainly isn't the most environmentally sensitive use of rail, but that one car, as was pointed out, is added to the BNSF at Everett or Snohomish and becomes part of the national network. What about trash? I'm sure the NIMBYs would hate it, but at some point, that rail line could become the connection used by a containerized garbage train going to a far away desert, far away from your sensitive eyes and noses, where the trash will be buried, from Redmond via Snohomoish, Everett, Vancouver WA and Roosevelt. Concievably, that GNP line could also serve a track where containers are loaded onto and removed from flatcars right in Redmond for drayage a short distance via truck, rather than all the way from the Port of Seattle on interstate and surface roads.

I'm guessing the brie-eating,wine-sipping powers that be in Redmond would love to have a train of money-packing tourists and wine afficinados arrive on those tracks, but don't want that dirty stinkin' freight train. Just remember: virtually everything you consume came to you at some point on a train.

Posted Sun, Jan 23, 4:25 p.m. Inappropriate

I agree. Railroads were a major part of building our country, and will be a major part in saving it. Pure and simple, the reality of basic math and economics have been willfully, and wastefully ignored by our politicos.

"Profit is not evil, and railroads have an annual target rate set by the STB, presently around 10-11%. If a railroad can do the work for 1/3 the public cost in 1/3 the time, we all win. That is the reality the bureaucracies don't want us to know.

What were the 70's bumper stickers?
- "Question Assumptions" and
- "Don't Trust Authority"

The Eastside Rail Corridor is a golden opportunity for "wins" on so many fronts if just we keep asking the questions and don't take B.S. for an answer." — D.Engle

Posted Sun, Jan 23, 4:31 p.m. Inappropriate

D.Engle,

"Question Assumptions" and "Don't Trust Authority" were geared against the men in suits, the profiteers. While that is still true regarding the profiteers still sucking money out of the housing industry, and the Greed Masters of Wall Street, to me, it has also morphed into a statement against those who refuse to gain any understanding of economics.

- Those who dump the ugliest of density of housing next to unfathomably expensive light rail, and think they've made an intelligent decision.
- Those who are usually "pro environment", on the surface, but who absolutely balk at bothering to study, to learn to acquire knowlege or competent advice about how those "environmental" decisions actually cost more than many common sense decisions.
- Term limits are important at every governmental level.
- Smart Growth are two of the most expensive words on this planet.

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