Spirit of Washington Dinner Train

Spirit of Washington dinner train
    (click to enlarge)
The Spirit of Washington dinner train1 made its last run on the Eastside railroad on July 31.

The forced demise of this popular and profitable train has been costly for its management and employees. It also represents a major setback for the many small businesses, particularly in downtown Renton, which benefited from it. And it has been a disappointment to the residents of the Seattle metropolitan area and the many visitors from outside of the region who traveled long distances to experience it. Moreover, it was completely unnecessary.

The immediate cause for the end of service was the refusal by Burlington Northern, the current owner of the Eastside railroad, to renew the train's lease. The underlying reason is the strategy to remove all traffic from the railroad in order to facilitate the unpopular plan being pushed by a few local government officials to remove the tracks and replace them with a bicycle trail.

The Spirit of Washington was originally started in 1989 by Eric Temple and his brother Brig on the Washington Central Railroad in Eastern Washington, where it ran through the Yakima Valley to Ellensburg. The Temple family, which previously owned a chain of grocery stores, had purchased that line three years earlier. The train consists of refurbished cars that were formerly used on mainline passenger trains, including the legendary Super Chief, and two classic diesel locomotives.

The train was relocated to the Eastside in May 1992, where it ran daily (from 6:30 p.m.) on weekdays and twice a day on weekends on a 44 mile round trip between the carefully restored railway station in downtown Renton and the Columbia Winery in Woodinville's winery district. Passengers were treated to gourmet meals on the leisurely 75 minute northbound ride along the shore of Lake Washington and through Seattle's leafy eastern suburbs. They then had 45 minutes to tour the Winery and sample its premium products. Dessert was served on the return trip. Sights along the route included Boeing's huge aircraft assembly plant, Lake Washington and Mercer Island, the distant Seattle skyline, the spectacular Wilburton Trestle and the rapidly rising skyline of downtown Bellevue.

The train was a major success, both in terms of profitability and in terms of benefiting the region. During its 15 years of operation on the Eastside, it carried and entertained in excess of 1.3 million diners, including more than 600,000 visitors from out of state. It provided 80 full-time jobs and pumped more than $140 million into the local economy. It also played a key role in the revival of downtown Renton. Moreover, the train's management invested about $1.5 million into property enhancements and made more than $1 million in charitable contributions.

The immediate excuse for not renewing the lease was that work supposedly needed to be done on the Cedar River rail bridge near downtown Renton. The slightly longer term excuse was the proposed, and highly controversial, cutting of the line at Wilburton Tunnel in Bellevue, now apparently scheduled for the first part of 2008, in conjunction with the widening of the parallel I-405 freeway.

Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) had originally intended to keep the railroad intact while widening the freeway, as is a standard practice in such projects. However, it appears that certain local government officials who are intent on scrapping the railroad persuaded WSDOT to change its plans, as a way of making most of the railroad useless and facilitating its scrapping and replacement with a bicycle trail after acquisition by King County.

Eric Temple had offered to take over operation and maintenance of the entire Eastside railroad and even pay rent for using it were the County to succeed in its plan to purchase the railroad. This is because he had determined that he could operate the line at a profit (as his family has done with other short railway lines they own) because of the substantial combined revenues from the dinner train and existing freight service.

Eastside Rail Now! has been attempting to persuade government officials to stop the planned cutting of the line at Wilburton and the removal of the tracks. This would allow the return of the dinner train and the continuation of freight service as well as facilitate starting a rail transit service to take pressure off of the severely congested I-405 freeway.

Side view of dinner train
    (click to enlarge)
The train was relocated to a new base in Tacoma, where from August 3 it began a ten month trial operation on Tacoma Rail's Mountain Division, which is owned by the city of Tacoma. The daily 52 mile, three-and-a-half hour round trip to Lake Kapowsin, near Eatonville, is the first time in 75 years that a regularly scheduled passenger train has used that line.

In addition to the costs of lost sales for businesses in downtown Renton and elsewhere on the Eastside, this relocation has also been costly for the dinner train. It has required an estimated $200,000, mainly for moving the train's terminal facilities. It has also been necessary to replace some experienced employees. Moreover, there are questions as to whether the train will be as profitable at its new location because of the much smaller and less affluent population in the Tacoma area and because of what some people might consider to be a less interesting route.

In addition, in order to extend the service closer to Mount Rainier, it would be necessary to spend an estimated $8 million for a substantial upgrading of the track and repairing a bridge damaged by winter floods. Although the track is sufficient for low speed Tacoma Rail freight operations, it is not suitable for the 30 mph or so that would be necessary to reach closer to Mount Rainier within 80 minutes, which is considered about the maximum that riders would want for one way on a round trip.

Even if the dinner train is successful in Tacoma, there is no reason that a dinner train could not or should not be returned to the Eastside, if the proposed scrapping of the railroad is prevented. Fortunately, Temple and others have indicated that surplus rail equipment is available with which to start a second dinner train. Also, there would be no conflict between the operation of a dinner train and the transit services which has been proposed for the same tracks.

1The dinner train's official web site is www.spiritofwashingtondinnertrain.com.

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This page created January 18, 2007. Last updated August 10, 2007.
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