Alternative Uses for the
Eastside Railroad Right of Way

Eastside Rail right of way
Typical view of the spacious 100 foot right of way.
Seattle's prosperous and rapidly growing Eastside possesses a unique and very valuable resource in the form of a 47 mile operating, but greatly underutilized, railroad that passes through most of its biggest cities and close to other major destinations1. It also roughly parallels I-405, which may be the most congested freeway in the entire Northwest. Moreover it has a very generous width of approximately 100 feet for most of its length. Thus, it is of great importance for the future of the region to make a wise decision as to the use of this resource.

The Options

There are a number of possible alternatives for the Eastside Rail right of way as follows:

(1) Do nothing and leave it as it is currently.

(2) Let Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, its current owner and operator, sell the right of way parcel by parcel to the highest bidders.

(3) Let King County proceed with its announced plan to acquire the right of way intact and convert it to a trail.

(4) Have King County acquire the right of way and replace the railroad with some other mode of transportation.

(5) Have King County acquire the right of way, replace the railroad with some other mode of transportation and add a trail.

(6) Have King County acquire the railroad and right of way intact and retain the railroad for its current functions.

(7) Have King County acquire the railroad and right of way intact, retain the railroad for its current functions and add a trail.

(8) Have King County acquire the railroad and right of way intact, retain the railroad for its current functions and add a local passenger transportation service to the railroad.

(9) Have King County acquire the railroad and right of way intact, retain the railroad for its current functions, add a local passenger transportation service to the railroad and also add a trail.

(1) Doing Nothing

The first option is to do nothing and leave the railroad and its right of way as it is at present. The railroad is currently used for freight service for roughly a dozen industries along the route, by the very successful Spirit of Washington dinner train and as an bypass for the Burlington Northern main line through downtown Seattle. It is a bypass for the occasional loads that are too large to fit through Burlington Northern's hundred year old railroad tunnel under downtown Seattle. It also stands ready to be used as a bypass for that route in the event of severe damage to the tunnel or to the portion of that line north of Seattle from major landslides, such as could result from a large earthquake.

The railroad clearly plays an important role for the local economy. Moreover, there are good indications that it could be profitable, despite claims by Burlington Northern that it is losing money on it because of declining freight revenues and rising maintenance costs2.

Unfortunately, doing nothing is not a good option. Reasons include the facts that (a) Burlington Northern has announced its intention to sell the line, (b) the railroad and its right of way could be used much more effectively than at present and (c) there as strong pressures to dismantle the railroad.

(2) Sell the Right of Way Parcel by Parcel

The second option is to let Burlington Northern sell the right of way parcel by parcel to the highest bidders. There is clearly a strong demand by adjacent property owners and others to purchase parts of the right of way.

However, the problem with this are that it would be the end of both the railway and its right of way. It would be extremely difficult, if not impossible to reassemble the right of way again in the future because of likely strong opposition from some purchasers, higher costs and the need to remove structures which had been built on it.

For this reason, King County, in which most of the right of way is located, has expressed a strong interest in obtaining it either by a direct purchase or through some more complex transaction. Negotiations are currently under way, according to press reports.

(3) Keep the Right of Way Intact for a Trail

The third option, the so-called rails-to-trails option, is for King County to acquire the right of way intact, remove the rails, and construct a trail for bicycles and pedestrians. The right of way would also be kept in reserve for possible future transit use. This is what King County has proposed and what it did several years ago with the former Burlington Northern right of way between Issequah and Redmond.

This option implies that most of the right of way would be a linear park and/or nature reserve, as a trail would probably be only 10 or 15 feet wide at most.

One problem with this option is that it would eliminate the most important current function of the right of way (i.e., railroad transportation). Another problem is that it would make it extremely difficult to use the right of way for rail transit service in the future. This is because experience elsewhere has shown that there are serious political and financial obstacles to reinstalling tracks after they have been removed.

(4) Use for Non-Rail Transport

The fourth option consists of dismantling the railroad and replacing it with some non-rail mode of transportation. This could be (a) a monorail, (b) a road solely for busses, so-called bus rapid transit (BRT), or (c) a general purpose, limited-access road.

The right of way is clearly sufficiently wide for any of these non-rail alternatives. However, there are some disadvantages to each of them. One problem common to all of them is that they would require the expense of ripping out the tracks and would preclude existing and future rail functions.

The concept of monorails has long been popular, and for good reason. Monorails can zoom along unimpeded above everything on the ground and can offer great views. Unfortunately, however, there are practical problems. One is that they are typically no less expensive to construct that conventional railroads. Another is that switching mechanisms are bulky and cumbersome, thus limiting system flexibility3. In addition, because there are extremely few suppliers of the systems, everything must be custom-produced, which can add substantially to cost. Thus, virtually all existing and new fixed guideway transit systems in the world, with the exception of a handful in Japan, use standard steel wheel on steel rail technology.

Although BRT has recently become a popular concept, it is highly controversial within the transit industry. It has the advantages that it can be relatively inexpensive to implement if started on existing streets and it can be much faster than conventional bus service. Among its disadvantages as compared with rail transit are a lesser capacity, higher maintenance costs, safety problems at road crossings because of lack of gates such as are used on railroads, and reliance on internal combustion engines (with their inherent pollution and noise). Some studies have also indicated that there is a significant passenger preference for riding in rail vehicles rather than busses.

Using the right of way to build a general-purpose road would certainly appeal to some people. This is because it might provide a cheaper alternative to adding still more lanes to the roughly parallel I-405 freeway. However, this approach is clearly the least attractive of these three non-rail choices, because (a) it does nothing to provide a less energy-intensive and environmentally damaging alternative to automobile transportation, (b) it would use greatest amount of the right of way (as it would presumably have to be at least two lanes in each direction, thus leaving the least space for a trail and nature reserve) and (c) it would likely become congested just like the freeway.

An additional problem with all three of these modes is that there would likely be strong opposition from nearby residents. The opposition would, of course, be strongest to the general purpose road, as it would be closest to adjacent homes and produce the greatest noise, air pollution and safety hazard.

(5) Use for Non-Rail Transport and a Trail

The addition of a trail and its accompanying greenery would certainly be a major improvement over using the right of way solely for a monorail route, busway or general purpose road.

It would be practical to place a trail alongside a general purpose road on the 100 foot right of way if the road had only six lanes, each 12 feet wide. And it could also be placed in the median of the road if it were more like a boulevard rather than a high-speed expressway.

(6) Acquire Solely for Rail Transport Use

The sixth alternative is to acquire the right of way and continue to operate the railroad as is, that is, continue to use it for the dinner train, freight service and as an emergency bypass for Burlington Northern's main line through Seattle. This removes the threat of the railroad selling off its right of way by individual parcels, maintains the important existing functions and keeps the option open for starting a low cost transit service on the existing tracks.

(7) Acquire for Railroad and Trail Use

The seventh alternative is similar to the sixth except to to add a trail on the right of way parallel to the railroad. This could be termed the rails-with-trail alternative. It is a definite improvement over having no trail because of the added transportation and recreational opportunities for bicycle riders and pedestrians.

(8) Acquire for Railroad and Rail Transit Use

The eighth alternative is similar to the seventh except that it includes expanding the use of the railroad. That is, it is to (a) acquire and preserve the right of way and its railroad intact, (b) continue to provide the current railroad services and (c) add a rail transit service. There would likely be a large demand and growing demand for such transit service because of the ever-increasing congestion on the parallel I-405 freeway and continuous growth of population in the region. And it would be relatively easy to accommodate such service because the track is already operational and has a great deal of excess capacity.

There are three main alternative ways of implementing transit service on the railroad. The least expensive and fastest would be (a) running DMUs (diesel multiple units) on the existing track with the addition of a few passing sidings and simple stations. A DMU is a type of light rail vehicle that is powered by a self-contained diesel engine that has operational characteristics similar to conventional light rail but which does not require electrification. There has been substantial technological progress on DMUs in recent years, including lower fuel consumption, reduced emissions, lower noise and increased passenger capacities, and thus there has been a surge of interest in using them in a number of North American cities.

A more costly option and one that would take longer to implement would be to (b) electrify the line in order to operate convention electrically-powered light rail vehicles on it. This is usually preferable for lines with higher traffic densities and thus greater frequencies of service because of reduced operating costs, faster acceleration and fewer adverse environmental effects. Because of the time required for electrification, the use of DMUs can often be a good strategy for pilot projects and temporary services for such lines.

A third option is to (c) operate heavy rail commuter trains similar to the Sounder, which Sound Transit operates on Burlington Northern's main line through Seattle. However, such trains are much more costly to acquire and operate that DMUs and light rail vehicles and they might require substantial upgrading of the track to accommodate their heavier weight. In addition, they have a substantially slower acceleration, which makes them less suitable for use in high density areas such as the Eastside line, which would likely have numerous stations.

Some work will be required on the tracks regardless of the type of rail transit that is implemented. For an initial pilot project with half hourly service in each direction, it would probably be possible to keep most of the line single track and just add passing sidings in a few locations (in addition to the siding that already exists in Bellevue). For more frequent service, much of the line might have to be double tracked.

(9) Acquire for Railroad, Rail Transit and Trail Use

The final alternative is to (a) acquire the right of way and railroad intact, (b) continue to provide the current railroad services, (c) add a rail transit service and also (d) construct a trail with a linear nature preserve. There is clearly plenty of room for both a trail and a linear nature preserve on the right of way even if the number of tracks were increased from the current one to two, as two tracks plus buffer zones for them would require a maximum of only 50 feet, and probably much less.

This alternative provides for the greatest number of uses of the right of way and is also the most beneficial from an environmental point of view. It is the alternative that is advocated by Eastside Rail Now!

1For more detailed information about the right of way, please see the page Eastside Railroad Route.

2Eric Temple, the owner and operator of the dinner train, has requested that he be allowed to operate the line should King County take it over. He stated that it would be profitable because of the combined revenue from the dinner train and the freight service. He added that he would also be willing to pay the county rent for the railroad and would welcome construction of a parallel trail. There have been numerous examples in recent years of large railroads selling branch lines that they claim are unprofitable to small companies or individuals, who are able to make them profitable by increasing the freight business and cutting costs.

3Thus, there are typically far fewer switches between the beams on which monorails run than there are between tracks on rail transit systems. For example, there are no switches on the Seattle monorail; instead, each of the two trains runs on its own separate beam.

Home | About | Route | Amenities | FAQ | Index

This page created January 23, 2007.
Copyright © 2007 Eastside Rail Now! All Rights Reserved.