Those who recall the Spirit of Washington dinner train, which plied the so-called Eastside rail line from 1993 to 2007, may well wonder what happened to their fond memory and the tracks it ran on. It’s a long story.
What will happen with the Eastside Snohomish-Renton line, a bone of much contention since its transfer to public ownership three years ago, remains anyone's guess. The freight rail operation along the Snohomish-Woodinville segment of the so-called Eastside line may soon have a new owner, resolving an acrimonious Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Still, a thicket of legalisms, politics and finance must be negotiated before any comprehensive transportation corridor can be reestablished.
The right-of-way, typically 100 feet across, has been publicly owned since 2009, when Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway transferred its ownership to the Port of Seattle. GNP Railway, a small freight company with three principals, then began operating freight trains on the line, but was forced into bankruptcy in February 2011.
In late September, a federal bankruptcy court finally approved the sale of GNP's assets to Douglas Engle, GNP’s former CFO. Iowa Pacific Holdings of Chicago, which owns several small passenger and freight operations, had abruptly dropped out of the bidding process, explaining that court-appointed Chapter 11 trustee Perry Stacks “has apparently endorsed a cash bid by Mr. Douglas Engle.”
Iowa Pacific declined to comment for this article, but Stacks speculated that the company bowed out of the Eastside process because of the challenges of dealing with the city of Kirkland, which intends to tear up the 5.75 miles of the line that it now owns, and with the bankruptcy process. Stacks told Crosscut that he had in fact invited the company to make a bid.
Either way, Engle became the only prospective buyer. “The railroad was going to stop running, or it was going to be sold [to Engle],” Stacks said.
Engle is paying $175,000 for the operation and has until mid-December to close on the purchase. If it falls through, Stacks will retain $100,000 of the $175,000 to keep the operation rolling for the time being. “This will give us time to find another buyer,” Stacks explained.
In an interview, Engle distanced himself from GNP. “We had financing in hand, and due to unethical actions by Tom Payne and Tom Jones, [a former consultant and current creditor of GNP] the deal fell apart, and I left the company.” Engle did not elaborate on his charge, which Payne and Jones declined to comment on.
As to the prospects for reviving the Spirit of Washington, Engle told Crosscut he was “very interested in getting the excursion train re-established on the line,” but provided little detail beyond indicating that the train would run between Snohomish and the Woodinville wine district.
Though he was reticent to talk about specific opportunities for freight business, Engle did mention a number of major Bellevue construction undertakings: Railcars could remove soil or bring in raw materials.
Still, that would require getting through Kirkland, which has purchased the segment of the right-of-way within the city in order to build a trail on the rail bed, and has since dismantled crossing equipment and blocked off the tracks to prevent vehicular access.
The disappearance of the Kirkland segment would leave Bellevue isolated and thus remove the prospect of an excursion service, for example, running from the Eastside's largest city out to the Woodinville wine district or over the mountain to Leavenworth.
According to Dave Godfrey, the city’s transportation engineering manager, Kirkland is “moving ahead with removing the tracks,” likely beginning in the first quarter of next year. And the city has already received federal and state grants totaling $3 million, of $3.6 million needed, to build an interim, gravel trail on the rail bed.
The dual-use scenario articulated by King County (trail plus high-capacity transit), Godfrey said, “matches with our vision, and we support it fully.” Asked how the rails might be reinstated once they've been ripped out, he said, “That's something we'll get into in our master plan.” That plan has yet to be written.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!