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?
Crosscut archive image.
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?

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.

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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. 


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