Homeland Security and
The Eastside Railroad

There are several obvious and compelling reasons for retaining and gradually upgrading the Eastside railroad rather than replacing it with a bicycle trail as is being actively promoted by King County Executive Ron Sims.1 One important reason that is usually not given the attention that it deserves is the railroad's potential role in helping to provide security, not just for the Eastside but also for the Puget Sound region as a whole and perhaps even for the entire U.S.

Large-scale disasters have occurred throughout human history as a result of both natural and man-made causes. And despite the fact that most of us would prefer to not think about it, they will occur again, typically when least expected. The catastrophes that occurred on September 11, 2001 in New York and four years later in New Orleans serve as stark reminders of the vulnerability of our large metropolitan areas.

Particular Vulnerability of Seattle Area

Large urban areas are vulnerable for a variety of reasons. They can include (a) high population densities, (b) the fragility of transport networks and other infrastructure, (c) dependence on remote and precarious sources for fuel, food, water, etc. and (d) their attractiveness as targets for terrorism.

The potential for large natural and man-made disasters is particularly great in Seattle metropolitan area. There are several reasons for this, including:

(a) unstable geology   The area contains numerous earthquake faults because of its location near the convergence of two major tectonic plates. This makes it subject to moderate earthquakes which can occur every few decades and do significant localized damage. It also makes it subject to truly massive earthquakes which occur every few hundred years and which would cause much more severe damage, including possibly even to high rise buildings and other structures constructed in compliance with recent building codes. Less likely but still possible is a major eruption of Mount Rainier, which could spew large amounts of volcanic ash and other debris for dozens of miles or more.

(b) fragile transportation infrastructure   Largely as a result of the region's unique geography, its land transportation system is characterized by a very small number of high capacity, heavily used highways and rail lines with little excess capacity and few practical alternatives. They could be severely disrupted by a variety of events, including earthquakes, severe storms and sabotage, and the result would be a sudden crippling of the regional economy, a great inconvenience to residents, and possibly even a substantial loss of life.

Freeways are particularly vulnerable to earthquakes because they usually have large numbers of overpasses and underpasses, which are typically fairly rigid reinforced concrete structures with limited seismic resistance (even when they conform to legally mandated building codes). This vulnerability was clearly demonstrated by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in the San Francisco Bay area and the 1994 Northridge earthquake in Los Angeles.

Two major highways in the Seattle metropolitan area, the Alaskan Way Viaduct and the SR520 floating bridge, are in a particularly precarious condition, and they could become impassible or collapse as the result of even a moderate earthquake, depending on the location of its epicenter. Moreover, other highway bridges, including many on I-405 and I-5, could also be vulnerable, again depending on the location and intensity of the quake. In addition, the SR520 bridge could be destroyed by a severe winter storm (as happened to part of the I-90 floating bridge in 1990), and both bridges could be tempting targets for sabotage. Restoration of these routes could take many months, or even years in the case of the Viaduct and the floating bridges.

Burlington Northern's rail line through downtown Seattle is the only north-south rail route for hundreds of miles, with the exception of the Eastside railroad, that company's lightly used single-tracked line that runs through the Eastside from Renton to Snohomish. It plays an important role in moving container traffic and other freight between Puget Sound port facilities and the U.S. interior (via the Stevens Pass tunnel), and it is also experiencing a growing volume of freight traffic to and from Canada as well as a small but growing volume of passenger traffic.

This line is highly vulnerable to natural and man-made actions. Among its weak points are the century-old tunnel under downtown Seattle, the aging bridge across the Ship Canal and the long, geologically-unstable coastal segment north of Golden Gardens. For example, a major earthquake or a derailment and subsequent fire could close the tunnel for a prolonged period.2 An earthquake could also trigger landslides that could do severe damage to the track along the coast.

(c) nearby nuclear facilities   Although there have apparently not been any major mishaps to date with military nuclear facilities in the U.S., at least no publicly disclosed ones, the possibility of a nuclear incident at the naval bases roughly 20 miles west of Seattle should not be ruled out. The accidents at Three Mile Island (1979) and Chernobyl (1986) as well as incidents in Japan in recent years serve as indisputable evidence that serious nuclear incidents, while very rare, can occur and will undoubtedly occur again. Such incidents have the potential to wreak severe devastation, in terms of both loss of life and damage to the economy, over a wide area and require an immediate mass evacuation.

(d) high profile and valuable target   The Seattle area has a great symbolic and practical value as a target for potential terrorists for several reasons, including the facts that it is home to some of the world's wealthiest people and best-known corporations, because of its iconic structures (particularly the Space Needle), because of the large concentration of nearby strategic military facilities, because of its strategic port facilities (the second largest on the West Coast) and because of the vulnerability of the floating bridges and ferry system.

How the Eastside Railroad Can Enhance Security

Security planning can be a complicated process because of the complexity and fragility of urban areas, the numerous types of disasters (both natural and intentional) that could occur, and the limited resources that are typically available for disaster prevention and preparedness. Fortunately, there are often a number of steps that can be taken to reduce the chances of some types of catastrophes occurring in the first place, to minimize the damage that would result, and to speed recover. They include strengthening and providing redundancy for the most vulnerable and strategic infrastructure items and formulating contingency plans (including for mass evacuation and recovery) for every possible type of disaster, no matter how unlikely it might seem at the time. These measures can often be implemented at surprisingly low cost and with minimal intrusions on personal liberty and other adverse effects.

One such low cost measure (and one with a whole host of additional benefits as well) is the retention and gradual upgrading of the Eastside railroad. The various potential security functions for this railroad include:

(a) bypass in case of damage to the rail line through Seattle   The railroad would provide an alternative means of north-south rail transport in the event that the critical but fragile rail route through downtown Seattle became damaged due to natural or man-made causes. Upgrades to the track that would be made mainly for the purpose of allowing higher speeds and greater capacity for a proposed commuter train service would likewise enhance this emergency bypass role by allowing the operation of longer, faster and more frequent freight trains.3

(b) bypass in case of damage to roads and bridges   The railroad could provide an alternative means of commuter and other passenger transportation in the event that the region's freeways were damaged due to earthquakes or other natural or man-made causes. After some upgrading, it could easily absorb a large portion of the intra-regional passenger traffic between the Eastside, the Kent Valley, Tacoma, etc. to the south and Snohomish, Everett, etc. in the north. The addition of several short branch lines that have been proposed by Eastside Rail Now!, most importantly through the Overlake corridor to downtown Redmond, would further enhance this role.

(c) insurance against large price increases or cut-offs of fuel   The possibility of a large increase in the price of and/or a prolonged cut-off of in the supply of petroleum is very real. Oil prices will undoubtedly continue their long-term ascent due to the gradual depletion of major oil fields together with the continued upward trend in worldwide demand. Prices could rise much more suddenly than in the past and severe shortages could quickly emerge as a result of the sabotage of oil production or transmission facilities in a major oil-producing country such as Saudi Arabia or Iran, a blockade of Mideastern waterways, a change in the oil export policy of one or more major producing countries, or damage to domestic refining facilities.

It has long been known that railroads use energy far more efficiently than does road transport, mainly because of the physics of their steel wheel on steel rail operation. Moreover, in the event of a permanent reduction in the availability of petroleum or a very large increase in its price, railroads can be electrified to operate on grid power. The Seattle metropolitan area is fortunate to have relatively abundant hydroelectric power and an excellent potential for other renewable and low-pollution power sources.

In addition to passenger traffic, large increases in fuel prices would also be expected to result in the shifting of some truck transport to rail. The Eastside railroad would provide a convenient bypass for the already congested rail route through Seattle, a route that could easily become saturated with such a modal shift. Moreover, it is possible that local rail freight service along the Eastside railroad would also increase, depending on the severity and duration of the fuel price increase and/or cut-off.

(d) efficient means of mass evacuation   Although the need for a mass evacuation is highly unlikely, it is still possible, and thus it should always be kept in mind when formulating transportation and regional security plans.4 An evacuation could be required as a result of a nuclear or biological incident, whether accidental or intentional. For example, the disaster at Chernobyl resulted the evacuation of more than 330,000 people from that largely rural area, and the Three Mile Island incident may have come close to requiring a mass evacuation as well. Also, it is possible that portable nuclear and/or biological weapons may have fallen, or will fall, into the hands of individuals and organizations who are eager to use them against the U.S. Evacuation could additionally be required in the event of a truly massive earthquake (and a possible accompanying tsunami) in which there is a very large loss of housing stock, the type that has historically occurred in the region every few hundred years and which will undoubtedly occur again.

Trains can be a particularly efficient way of evacuating large numbers of people quickly. The evacuation of New Orleans could likely have been carried out more effectively and with less human suffering and death had even the limited number of rail vehicle available locally been put to use for that purpose. One reason for this is that rail lines tend to be more resilient in times of disaster than are highways.5 Also, fuel supplies for road transport could become restricted, due to damage to pipelines or for other reasons. In addition, there are large numbers of people who do not have automobiles, even on the relatively prosperous Eastside. Another reason is that road-based mass evacuations are susceptible to huge traffic jams due to accidents, to running out of fuel by individual motorists, and to just the sheer volume of traffic, whereas such problems are mostly avoided with railroads.

The trend of the past several years to increase the amount of passenger rail service in the Puget Sound region, namely the Sounder commuter service and Amtrak inter-city service, has been a good one from the standpoint of making a fleet of passenger rail vehicles and related infrastructure available in the event that a mass evacuation were required. The launching of rail transit service on the Eastside railroad, which could be far less costly than the Sounder, would clearly result in a substantial increase in the number of such vehicles available.

1These reasons are discussed in detail elsewhere on this website. foremost among them is the fact that the railroad could be used to provide a high quality transit service at relatively modest cost that would (a) provide an alternative to the continued widening of the parallel I-405 freeway, which is the most congested freeway in the entire northwest, (b) help reduce air pollution and its consequent effect on morbidity and mortality, (c) help cut the emission of greenhouse gasses and (d) facilitate the development of high density, walkable neighborhoods and help restrain sprawl. Moreover, removing the rails and replacing them with a trail would cost taxpayers an estimated (by King County) $66 million, which could much better be used for other purposes (such as upgrading the railroad and starting a transit service on it). Neither these reasons nor the railroad's potential role in regional security are discussed in the costly ($800,000) Findings and Recommendations for Transportation Uses in BNSF Eastside Corridor report, which was commissioned by the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) and which is widely quoted by advocates of scrapping the railroad.

2An example is the fire that occurred in the century-old Howard Street rail tunnel under Baltimore in July 2001. A freight train traveling only 18 mph derailed and burned for four days. Temperatures reached 1,500 degrees and some of the cars glowed orange from the heat. Freight traffic throughout the East Coast was severely disrupted because of the loss of the use of the tunnel. Fortunately, there was no structural damage, and use of the tunnel was able to resume in six days.

3The railroad is currently rated at a maximum speed of 25 mph for freight trains over most of its length, with the exception of the Redmond branch. Also, it can accommodate relatively short double stack container trains and is sufficiently reliable to be in regular use for shipping Boeing's fragile aircraft fuselages to its assembly plant in Renton. An upgrading of the 40 mile line at a cost of about $200 million, which is roughly what Sound Transit is spending for each mile of its light rail system, would allow much longer and faster trains, comparable to those that run on the main line through Seattle.

4In fact, mass evacuation plans are mandated by federal law for some situations, such as for areas near nuclear power plants and possibly for urban areas that are subject to nuclear or biological attack. Likewise, mass evacuation plans are being developed to cope with a possible eruption of Mount Rainier. Neither the state, King County, nor the city of Seattle had developed mass evacuation plans as of mid-2007, with the reason being given that there is little likelihood that it would be necessary and because evacuation would be extremely difficult. However, as a result of federal prodding and funding, King Pierce and Snohomish counties, together with the City of Seattle, have already allocated an initial $350,000 to begin development of a plan for the Puget Sound region.

5This was demonstrated in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in the San Francisco Bay area, in which all of the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) and other rail lines survived intact but there was massive damage to area freeways. These rail lines played a key role in maintaining regional mobility. This resilience has also been demonstrated in wartime, particularly in the World Wars in Europe, where it was found that damaged rail lines could be repaired much more quickly and using far fewer resources than roads.

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This page created September 4, 2007.
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