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    Eastside rail: The Humpty Dumpty of Northwest transportation

    The Eastside's only rail line is in the midst of a five-way tug-of-war: Kirkland, Redmond, the Port of Seattle, Sound Transit, King County. Can so many owners ever amount to a whole, functioning transit line?
    The Eastside rail line (in red) has a host of owners. Click image to enlarge.

    The Eastside rail line (in red) has a host of owners. Click image to enlarge. King County Council

    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.

    This reporter has found no line comparable to the Eastside route whose tracks have been removed for a trail and subsequently relaid over the trail, although it appears likely that such will soon happen in one case, in Maryland. The unlikelihood of that sequence of events is a key concern for rail advocates.

    Kurt Triplett, Kirkland’s city manager, said he foresees the eventual construction of a new rail line and a permanent bicycle-pedestrian trail, neither of them on the current railbed, at a cost of about $100 million. Adding in the $3.6 million for the temporary trail yields a price of about $18 million for each of Kirkland's 5.75 miles.

    By contrast, a project under way in California, for a 70-mile transit corridor that will rehabilitate an existing rail line and build a bike-and-pedestrian pathway alongside it, is projected to cost $7.7 million a mile.

    Though he has faced criticism for taking out Kirkland's tracks, Triplett sees Kirkland as taking the lead in the unfolding events. "People choose to ignore that we're putting our money where our mouth is. No one else is doing that — not the port, not Sound Transit, not the county.”

    But Kirkland is only one of the many stakeholders that complicate the Eastside line’s status. After the 2008 demolition of the Bellevue's Wilburton tunnel destroyed the line as a through route, the Port of Seattle received all of the mileage from northern Renton to Snohomish, plus a spur from Woodinville to Redmond. BNSF retained trackage from northern Renton to the railroad's main line, near the Renton-Tukwila line. At the moment, the Port of Seattle still owns 30 of the 41 miles, while the city of Redmond has purchased 3.9 miles of its spur, Sound Transit owns about a mile in Bellevue, and this April, Kirkland purchased the mileage within its city limits.

    Sound Transit also holds an easement for the implementation of high-capacity rail transit on the entirety of the Redmond spur, and all of the mainline that it doesn't actually own from Woodinville down to Renton. For its part, King County holds a multipurpose trail easement on 26 miles of the route.

    They too are looking to buy more pieces of the Eastside transit puzzle. On August 27, King County executive Dow Constantine sent the County Council a proposal to purchase the 15.6 miles of track south of Woodinville not currently owned by Kirkland, Redmond or Sound Transit, as well as a new, 3.9-mile trail easement north of Woodinville, for $15.8 million. The staff briefing report makes only an indirect reference, in a footnote, to the possibility of resuming freight or passenger service if the council approves the plan.

    That doesn’t rule the possibility out, though. The county's existing easement articulates an intent “that the property be used for regional recreational trail and other transportation purposes, including. . . rail.” In a 2010 court deposition, port commissioner Gael Tarleton, now the commission chair, stated that “the reason for that paragraph was to make it explicit that the rail had to be preserved; that you couldn't have just a recreational trail.”

    The trail easement north of Woodinville would coexist with Engle's freight rail operation on the same mileage, suggesting that the county sees no practical problems in putting in a trail alongside existing tracks.

    However, County Council vice-chair Jane Hague noted that the county’s easement will essentially go out the window if the purchase is consummated, leaving the trail-vs.-rail question open until all those holding a stake in the line's fortunes come up with a new grand plan.

    “We've got five different partners in this corridor,” Hague stated, naming the county, Redmond, Kirkland, Sound Transit and Puget Sound Energy, which holds a utility easement. “The County Council’s position continues to be dual use. The necessity of having a regular planning process for how we . . . [institute] light rail and what the cost is going to be is huge.”

    Light rail is, of course, only one possibility and would be a long way off. If Engle’s plan falls through, the right-of-way may be used for a range of “interim uses,” including the bicycle-pedestrian trail that many on the Eastside would like to see it become.

    “We're hoping to conclude this [purchase] by the end of the year,” said Hague. “We're having weekly trek-through-the-mud sessions where, as staff has put it, we're trying to put Humpty-Dumpty back together again.”

    Among those pushing for a rail-plus-trail development is Bruce Agnew, director of Seattle's Cascadia Center for Regional Development. “King County is talking about putting 15.8 million into this right-of-way, when one of the municipalities is talking about tearing out the tracks,” he expressed wonderment at the developing situation. “How do you reconcile Kirkland wanting to tear out the tracks, when other public leaders are talking about keeping the tracks for commuter rail?”

    Reconnecting the two ends of the line by replacing the Wilburton tunnel, Agnew noted, would expand the reach for rail freight and return the line to its status as a true corridor. It would again provide the Seattle region with redundancy for through rail traffic, which, as things stand, depends on the single, mudslide-prone shoreline tracks. Then again, BNSF saw no need for preserving that redundancy when it first announced plans to divest itself of the Eastside line almost ten years ago.

    The prospect of ever returning the route to its former condition, as a through route serving both freight and passenger needs, thus rests on a chain of ifs: the success of Engle's endeavor, the rebuilding of the connection at Wilburton, cooperation among numerous public entities – and, most conspicuously, that $100-million dream in Kirkland.

    This story was revised on Friday, November 16 to reflect the fact that Tom Jones is a former consultant to and current creditor of GNP Railway, and not a principal in the company. 

    C.B. Hall is a freelance writer and has been following Pacific Northwest transportation issues since the 1990s. He can be reached through editor@crosscut.com.

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    Posted Tue, Nov 13, 7:08 a.m. Inappropriate

    As this story notes, Sound Transit purchased about a mile of this corridor, in Bellevue, for East Link. That segment is in the middle of the 42-mile stretch. It's where East Link would cross from downtown Bellevue and head out east (onto Bel-Red Road, to the "Overlake" area).

    There's no way that corridor could be used for freight rail -- even assuming where the Wilburton Tunnel was is bridged, the trackbed and tracks on the rest of the corridor are re-built to current specs, etc. -- if Sound Transit is using its segment in Bellevue for light rail.

    In other words, given how Sound Transit's segment would be used, that municipality would be cutting the corridor into two separate pieces. After that this corridor could not be used both for East Link light rail and as part of some Renton-to-Monroe freight line.


    Posted Tue, Nov 13, 8:44 a.m. Inappropriate

    Well, actually, there is a way.

    ST's boondoggle from Tacoma to Lakewood is on tracks that (someone) wants to move the mainline BNSF traffic to, and get it off the coast hugging route that goes north from Nisqually.

    That is nuckin' futz, moving rail from a corridor with 4 vehicle/ped crossings to one with a bazillion, that is in a built up area.

    Just sayin'

    The whole eastside thing, with multiple ownerships, and talk of a NEW rail corridor when you have one already, and at a cost more than twice what the story cites as a similar project in Cali just underscores how nutz we are about this stuff in these parts.


    Posted Wed, Nov 14, 8:35 p.m. Inappropriate

    There is an effort, supported by both Amtrak and BNSF, to get the passenger rail traffic off the double-track main line that runs from Point Defiance past Day Island and Steilacoom to Nisqualy. This is 10 additional trains a day for Lakewood, not the 60 to 80 that currently use the double-track along the shore of Puget Sound. The reason for the shift to the Lakeview line is to eliminate the only single-track section between Seattle and Portland, which is inside the tunnel running under Point Defiance. The tunnel was build as double-track, but double-stack container cars would not go through the arch roof without moving the track to the middle of the tunnel. This single-track segmenent causes a lot of wasted energy and time for the UP and the BNSF as they hold trains so as not to delay the passenger runs. They would LOVE to have Amtrak bypass the tunnel. Too bad for the passengers, because it is a beautiful segment along the Sound.


    Posted Tue, Nov 13, 11:32 a.m. Inappropriate

    It's doubtful that running a freight line along a reconstructed Renton-to-Woodinville track would make economic sense. There was just such a freight line, run by BNSF, just a few years ago, and they gave it up. I have walked the entire line, from Woodinville to Renton, and also Bothell to Redmond, twice since the trains stopped. There are many problems with the track, including:

    No Wilburton tunnel, and quite a difficult bridging job required to replace it.
    The rickety Wilburton trestle, which the dinner train had to slow down to 10 mph to cross and which might not even support that speed now.
    Kirkland's piece, which is rapidly being torn out.
    Numerous slumpings and washouts of the rail bed and the berms on either side of cuts.
    Another break in the line in Redmond where some condo construction took out the tracks.
    Track that is in terrible shape along the whole line.

    Merely to restore service to what it was circa 2005 would require spending quite a bit more than $100 million, I expect. To bring it to some sort of passenger rail standard, with two tracks and decent speed would cost a lot more than that--probably on the order of $1 billion. Nevertheless that is a vision I support--in the long run. A transit rail line that connects Bothell, Woodinville, Redmond, Kirkland, Bellevue, Newcastle, and Renton is a very attractive idea, and if it were a rail-with-trail that would be an excellent end result.

    In the long run we're all dead, though, and at age 51 I have a sneaking suspicion that will be exactly my condition before any sort of passenger rail gets going on the east side. It's pretty obvious that all the competing jurisdictions have no common goal with regard to this rail line. What Kirkland is doing--building a bike trail--is a great interim solution that adds a much-needed piece to the regional bike trail network while preserving the right-of-way for future rail use. Finally I will be able to bike to Kirkland without risking a heart attack struggling up a steep hill.

    Contrary to what some insist, putting a bike trail down does not permanently remove a rail line from future service. Several examples exist of railbanked corridors being reactivated for rail use, and there are many more rail-with-trail examples. You don't have to go very far for one. South King County's Interurban Trail runs next to the UP mainline from Tukwila to Pacific.

    Posted Wed, Nov 14, 6:13 p.m. Inappropriate

    This assessment comes from your railroad engineering background, I assume.


    Posted Wed, Nov 14, 11:03 a.m. Inappropriate

    I am a passenger rail and rail transit planner, and I am not familiar with any "railbanked" rights-of-way in urban areas where railroad was reintroduced. Rule of thumb is: remove the rails, and railroad service is gone for good. In that sense, what Kirkland is planning is not in the region's best interest.

    In Somerville, MA (across the river from Boston), a new light rail line is planned to run side by side with commuter and freight rail, within the right-of-way. It can be done along Sound Transit's segment, if ST leaves sufficient space. Would be a good place to fit an multimodal station also.

    Posted Wed, Nov 14, 11:27 a.m. Inappropriate

    In Somerville, MA (across the river from Boston), a new light rail line is planned to run side by side with commuter and freight rail, within the right-of-way. It can be done along Sound Transit's segment, if ST leaves sufficient space.

    Peter: There could not be a "side-by-side" alignment of freight lines and light rail lines in that one-mile stretch of the eastside rail corridor Sound Transit now owns. That is because Sound Transit will use that narrow one-mile stretch as a crossing point. Its two sets of light rail tracks will transverse the full width of that entire north-south corridor to reach the Bel-Red Road route from downtown Bellevue.


    Posted Wed, Nov 14, 1:27 p.m. Inappropriate

    Very sad to see Kirkland moving along in this manner. What is not often talked about in this conversation is the ability to connect the line to Everett Station which is only 5 miles from Snohomish; there may already be some tracks between the two.

    This would improve an already important transportation hub in the Puget Sound connecting Amtrak, Sounder, Community Transit Swift BRT, local and regional bus service, and (someday) light rail.

    At some point in the future, we will not be able to spend enough billions of dollars expanding the I-405 corridor. The Eastside Rail Corridor offers a real future opportunity for regional commutter rail service.

    Posted Wed, Nov 14, 6:09 p.m. Inappropriate

    " to connect the line to Everett Station which is only 5 miles from Snohomish; there may already be some tracks between the two."

    Ahem, like the BNSF Mainline over Stevens Pass. Capacity constraints could be an issue, though.


    Posted Wed, Nov 14, 4:42 p.m. Inappropriate

    There aren't many railroad reactivations in general. Look, it's 2012, not 1895--few new railroads are getting built for any reason. I don't want to appear snarky here, but have you tried google? Here is a list compiled in 2004 of rail lines ractivated on railbanked corridors:


    More recently you can read about this reactivated line that is now a rail-with-trail:


    You want urban? Here's one on Staten Island, for pete's sake:


    Anyway, I agree, a rule of thumb is that once the rails are gone, the trains rarely return. That's been true since railroad mileage began plummeting in the 1930s. But it's only a rule of thumb, not a natural law. Counter-examples exist.

    Posted Thu, Nov 15, 4:56 a.m. Inappropriate

    These examples show bits of track rebuilt and reactivated here and there. The one exception is the Dallas region corridor. There, the trail appears to have been designed to run along the edge of the right-of-way, so it didn't preclude rail reactivation. Railroad was reactivated in this case, but I imagine the mitigation measures to satisfy abutting residents and stakeholders was tremendous.

    The LA County Metropolitan Transportation Authority purchased several abandoned rail rights-of-way in the 90s. This has enabled the dramatic and ongoing light rail expansion in the county. Design criteria for these properties sometimes allows a trail along the edge. Plant trees or build a meandering trail, and you can say goodbye to any future rail use--especially railroad. Does Kirkland have this sort of careful, preserving design criteria? No. The Kirkland approach ensures trains never return (exactly what many abutters hope for).

    Posted Thu, Nov 15, 5:33 a.m. Inappropriate

    I am intimately familiar with an ongoing effort to reactivate a rail corridor in Massachusetts for commuter rail. Two cities of 100 K residents would again be connected to Boston by rail and desperately want that. The recommended alternative has repeatedly followed an abandoned rail stretch where track is still in place. Mainly because of neighboring residents' concerns and other environmental considerations, the planning and design has been in process for over 40 years. The project remains a high state priority.

    If the rails had been removed and a trail established in their profile, no question this particular alternative would be finished.

    Railroad-with-trail is conceivable for the Eastside Rail Corridor, but only if planning and initial design work that preserves railroad capability, and does not remove the tracks, happens now. I don't see how you can get that by selling off segments to multiple owners. LA County's approach is the way: the single owner should be a transportation authority. Both rail and trail are transportation.

    Posted Thu, Nov 15, 10:12 a.m. Inappropriate

    It doesn't seem likely that any freight service, no matter how much money is thrown at it to bring it up to modern standards, it ever going to be economically viable in the long run.

    The economy of this corridor is changing faster than a bullet train. I can't imagine that in 10 years, there'll ever again be anywhere close to enough bulk cargo business to make an operating profit.

    I hate to see tracks go, but a long-haul regional trail on the Eastside will undoubtedly provide the greatest good for the greatest number.

    Besides, we would never build heavy rail commuter or intra-regional service again, at least not down this corridor.


    Posted Thu, Nov 15, 12:59 p.m. Inappropriate

    "Besides, we would never build heavy rail commuter or intra-regional service again, at least not down this corridor. "

    That seems to be Kirkland's mission, along with the adjacent property owners.

    People need to look into the documentation from the I-405 Corridor Program which was completed around the year 2000, and the 2008 Joint PSRC/Sound Transit study.

    Remember, the current plan is to build a $1 Billion "BRT" system through the corridor.


    Posted Sat, Nov 17, 5:44 a.m. Inappropriate

    The more I look at this, the more it looks like light rail is the future for the Eastside Rail Corridor. Light rail would not be restricted to the railroad corridor exclusively, but could extend beyond to places like downtown Kirkland, Factoria, and the UW Bothell campus. However, if the right-of-way is not preserved for future rail-with-trail use, future rail will be very difficult. Start the planning and design now, and keep the trail along the edge of the right-of-way. Rail transit will support attractive, sustainable development along the corridor in a way that freeway bus service cannot.

    Posted Sat, Nov 17, 8:31 a.m. Inappropriate

    "The more I look at this, the more it looks like light rail is the future for the Eastside Rail Corridor."

    It was studied here:

    Alternative 3 is the preferred alternative.

    Light Rail is not part of the corridor plans, at least not within the Cost Benefit analysis where the horizon year was set at 2030 (in the year 2000).

    The Light Rail option was budgeted at $4.5 Billion.
    Alternative 3 includes the $1 Billion freeway "BRT" system.

    The PSRC/Sound Transit (2008) study has commuter rail on this ROW set at $1.3 Billion which includes the line all the way out of the I-405 Corridor Program's study area, to the town of Snohomish.

    "Light rail would not be restricted to the railroad corridor exclusively, but could extend beyond to places like downtown Kirkland, Factoria, and the UW Bothell campus. "

    From the diagrams on Alternatives 1 & 2, note that through Kirkland the LRT alignment follows the Woodinville Subdivision most of the way.

    I suggest you look at Google Maps:

    and take a tour with the street level view where the LRT alternative diverges from the Woodinville ROW. Then you can assess the politics for yourself (don't forget to look west).

    Commuter rail on this line would also serve as a commute alternative for those from the SR-522, SR-9, and SR-527 corridors, which produces a major portion of the congestion on I-405.

    In the I-405 Corridor Program analysis, the screenlines show the car counts as more or less 'magically' appearing in Bothell and Woodinville, since the boundaries of that study did not go any farther north.


    Posted Sat, Nov 17, 6:51 p.m. Inappropriate

    Thank you, Jim--I will look more closely. I will also consider all this in the context of a Kirkland to East Bellevue transit corridor, with a Vancouver-style SeaBus connection to future Sand Point to Ballard rail transit. Also an I-90 Link extension to Issaquah.

    Posted Mon, Nov 19, 7:43 p.m. Inappropriate

    Maybe it would work if the coal trains were on it. The investment in the line would be peanuts compared to the profits Goldman Sachs and other can anticipate from shipping coal through here to China.


    Posted Sat, May 10, 8:16 a.m. Inappropriate

    It seems to me that the East Side has become so traffic congested that they need to upgrade the existing tracks and run a commuter train. Look at the billions they are spending on the bus and light rail tunnels which will not really accomplish much of anything. I think they can even use this corridor to run workers to Boeing in Everett. We must not abandon the tracks. We need it also for freight to get the heavy trucks off the highways that damage the roads.


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