Eastside Railroad Myths
-- and Realities

Whether intentional or due to a lack of understanding of basic transportation concepts by public officials,1 there has been a great deal of misinformation surrounding the Eastside railroad and the effort to replace it with a bicycle trail. The most common of these myths, together with their corresponding realities, are:

Myth #1:   The railroad does not go where people want to go. Thus, there would be little demand for passenger service on it.

Fact:   The railroad has a nearly ideal location for commuter rail service on the Eastside. It roughly parallels I-405, which is the most congested freeway in the entire Northwest. And it passes through or near most major destinations on the Eastside, including downtown Bellevue, which is growing rapidly and already has the second largest urban core in the state. Moreover, the trains will eventually be able to run all the way to Everett or beyond in the north and to Tacoma or beyond in the south on existing tracks. It would be difficult to imagine a better location even with an expenditure of many billions of dollars and many years of disruptive construction.

Myth #2:   The railroad is too far from downtown Bellevue to be useful.2

Fact:   A station near NE 8th Street in Bellevue would be as close, or closer, to the existing downtown area as are commuter rail stations in other major cities.3 Most users of commuter rail in U.S. cities transfer to local transit to complete their journeys to work. Bellevue commuters could reach their final destinations within minutes via a shuttle or circulator bus service or via a new pedestrian bridge or lid over the I-405 freeway. Moreover, the railroad passes directly through the future growth path of downtown Bellevue to the east of I-405.

Myth #3:   The Eastside has "bus rapid transit" and thus does not need rail transit.

Fact:   It is true that bus service has improved on the Eastside in recent years. But it is definitely not "rapid transit."4 Buses get caught in traffic, even on freeway carpool lanes, and many people find them uncomfortable or unpleasant to ride. It has been shown in city after city that rail can provide a much more attractive service and is generally much more effective in inducing people to use public transit.5

Myth #4:   The railroad would be useless because there is only a single track, and thus trains could not go in both directions.6

Fact:   Most rail lines in the world have only a single track over much or most of their distance, as do many commuter rail lines. They are able to provide service in both directions by using passing sidings, which are short sections of a second track that allow trains to pass each other. Several passing sidings already exist on the Eastside railroad, and it would be a relatively easy matter to add more.

Myth #5:   The railroad is not suited for transit use because it has curves.7

Fact:   Almost all rail lines have curves, just as many roads have curves. Trains are designed to go through curves. There are curves on the Burlington Northern main line through Seattle that is used by Sound Transit's Sounder commuter trains, and there are curves on Sound Transit's new light rail line under construction in Seattle. Trains have run on the Eastside railroad for more than a century without problems despite the existence of curves, so it is strange that suddenly this becomes a major impediment to further use. Moreover, track curvature can be reduced to allow higher speeds, just as roads can be straightened.

Myth #6:   The railroad is not well suited for transit use because it has grade crossings.

Fact:   Nearly all commuter railroads have grade crossings, and such crossings have rarely proved to be a serious or insurmountable problem. There are even many grade crossings on the BNSF tracks used by Sound Transit's Sounder commuter trains and on the new light rail line under construction in Seattle. The Eastside railroad has been in use for more than a century and there has never been any serious concern raised about its grade crossings, despite the fact that years ago there was much more traffic on the railroad than there is today.

Disruptions to road traffic by commuter rail on the Eastside would be minimal because the trains would be short and relatively infrequent (e.g., initially several times a day and eventually hourly), in contrast to the frequent disruptions of road traffic by BNSF's main line through Seattle due to frequent and extremely long freight trains. Also, there could be more disruption of road traffic if the railroad were converted to a bicycle trail and crossing signals were installed at road intersections.8

Myth #7:   It would be too expensive to start a transit service on the railroad, and there is no money available for it now.

Fact:   A simple pilot service could be started for as little as $10 million for a three year period. And, according to some estimates, the entire 47 mile railroad could be substantially upgraded for higher speeds and greater capacity for as little as $40 million. This contrasts with the roughly $200 million that Sound Transit is spending for each mile of its light rail line in Seattle and the $325 million per mile (exclusive of cost overruns) that it projects for its planned line from Seattle to Bellevue. Providing a commuter rail service would also be vastly cheaper than continuing to widen the parallel I-405 freeway.

Regarding the availability of funds, Sound Transit already has several hundred million dollars of unspent funds that it has collected from the East King County subarea and which it is required by law to spend in this same subarea. Moreover, this figure is projected to soar to roughly $3 billion by 2037.

Myth #8:   The track would need to be removed anyway in order to upgrade it for higher speeds and a smoother ride, and thus it would be best to use the trackbed as a trail after removal and until the rail is reinstalled in the future.

Fact:   Not only is there is no need to remove the existing track in order to upgrade it, but also doing so would be far more expensive than upgrading it while keeping the existing track in place. The main reason is the automated machinery that is used to replace rails, ties and ballast must run on existing rails.9 Another reason is that costly environmental and engineering studies would likely be required if the tracks were reinstalled after having been gone for a significant period of time. Such studies could also take years, further adding to the costs.

Myth #9:   The track is in poor condition and is thus not suitable for a modern transit service.10

Fact:   The track is definitely not in poor condition, which implies that it has a maximum speed of about 10 mph and is subject to frequent derailments. It is generally in fair to good condition, and is typical of that of a secondary main line. It was used without problems by the popular and profitable Spirit of Washington dinner train until mid-2007, and it is still being used by Boeing to ship its fragile aircraft fuselages to its plant in Renton for final assembly.

Moreover, the condition of the track has little relevance to its use for commuter rail. This is because it is usually possible to upgrade existing track, no matter how bad its condition, at a cost far lower than starting from scratch or building new freeway capacity.

Myth #10:   More people would use the trail than would use the railroad.11

Fact:   A passenger service on the Eastside railroad would likely transport many thousands, and eventually tens of thousands, of people daily, based on experience with new rail lines elsewhere in the U.S. And many of them would ride fairly long distances, including from the Kent Valley and all the way from Snohomish and Pierce counties, regardless of the weather. Were the railroad to be scrapped and converted to a bicycle trail, such trail would be used by hundreds of riders a day, most of which would be traveling relatively short distances.

Myth #11:   The railroad no longer has any freight role.

Fact:   The Eastside railroad is the only remaining alternative north-south rail line west of the Cascades. It has an important role as an emergency freight bypass in the event of some disaster on Burlington Northern's heavily trafficked and vulnerable line through downtown Seattle and along the coast to Everett. The Eastside railroad can already accommodate double stacked container trains at speeds up to 25 mph, and it could accommodate faster and longer freight trains after upgrading of the tracks for commuter rail use. It could also have an increased local freight role in the event of a cutoff in oil imports, a very large increase in oil prices and/or a decision to take drastic action to cut the output of greenhouse gases.

Myth #12:   A government study determined that the railroad should be replaced by a bicycle trail.

Fact:   The Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) published a lengthy report, The BNSF Corridor Preservation Study, in early 2007 that purported to prove that the railroad should be converted into a bicycle trail. However, this superficially impressive and costly ($800,000) document is severely flawed and is thus totally unsuited for making rational decisions about the future of the railroad. For example, it fails to employ any recognized transportation infrastructure decision making methodology (such as least cost planning), gives inadequate consideration to the major potential uses for the railroad (such as for commuter rail and regional security), ignores the most important environmental and economic effects of scrapping the railroad, shows a lack of fiscal responsibility, and has a strong appearance of conflict of interest.

Myth #13:   If the railroad were converted into a trail, it could be converted back into a railroad for transit use when there was sufficient demand because it would be railbanked under the Rails-to-Trails Act.

Fact:   There are extremely few examples of success in reinstalling railroads that have been railbanked under the Rails-to-Trails Act. This is because of intense political opposition and the very high costs of reinstalling removed track. Moreover, it is highly likely that there is already a strong demand for commuter rail service in the Eastside railroad corridor (e.g., because it parallels the most congested freeway in the entire U.S. Northwest), and thus there is no need to wait 20 years as proposed by those in favor of scrapping the railroad.

Myth #14:   The Eastside urgently needs more bicycle trails.

Fact:   There are already in excess of 175 miles of trails in King County,12 which is more than almost every other urban area in the U.S. Moreover, trails already exist that parallel substantial sections of the Eastside railroad. Were the railroad to be scrapped as is being pushed by King County Executive Ron Sims, trail mileage in the county would rise to more than 200, but the Eastside would lose any opportunity to obtain commuter rail for decades, and likely forever. There are more effective and less costly ways to improve bicycle safety and convenience on the Eastside.

Myth #15:   The Eastside railroad right of way is well suited for use as a bicycle trail.

Fact:   There are a variety of problems with constructing a bicycle trail on the railroad right of way. One is that it could cost as much as $200 million if the tracks were kept in place, according to King County. This is an enormous amount of money to be paid by property owners and renters -- most of whom would rarely or ever use the trail -- just for another bicycle trail, especially in a region that already has an extensive trail network, including trails that parallel much of the railroad.

Another is that parts of the railroad right of way are not owned by the railroad but rather consist of easements for railroad use granted by adjacent property owners. However, such easements were not granted for bicycle trails and it is likely that some of the current owners would object to -- and be able to block -- such a use.

In addition, some people have expressed the opinion that if any trails are constructed, they should designed to be pleasant and safe for pedestrians (including children, senior citizens and handicapped people) instead of just being a freeway for bicycles. Also, trail width and pavement should be kept to a minimum in order to retain as much as possible of the right of way as a linear nature preserve.13

Myth #16:   It is necessary to sever the track at Wilburton Tunnel in order to accommodate the widening of the I-405 freeway.

Fact:   Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) originally planned to keep the railroad intact while widening I-405. Severing rail lines to widen freeways is not a normal practice, just as electric transmission lines, pipelines and other utilities are not usually cut in order to widen freeways. However, a leading proponent of scrapping the railroad persuaded WSDOT that it should change its plans.14 Although it has been argued that there could be a significant cost savings from cutting the tracks instead of keeping the tunnel intact or building a new bridge over the widened freeway,15 any such savings would pale in comparison to the multi-billion dollar cost of widening the freeway. Moreover, the total cost to the region from the loss of the railroad for commuter rail and emergency freight use would far outweigh any short-term monetary savings.

    - by Bill Bailey (ERN! board member)

1This is consistent with The Economist magazine's statement (June 30, 2005 issue) that the Seattle area "...probably has the worst transport planning in North America."

2For example, the PSRC's BNSF Corridor Preservation Study, p. 14, stated: "...the existing rail line is not very well located to effectively serve downtown centers such as Bellevue."

3The distance from Caltrain's San Fransisco station to the downtown financial district (Montgomery and Pine) is roughly one mile as the bird flies (and longer on foot). Likewise, the distance from Metrolink's Union Station in Los Angeles to the downtown financial district (Fifth and Grand) is more than a mile. And the distance from Sound Transit's King Street Station commuter rail terminus to University Street in downtown Seattle is close to three quarters of a mile. In contrast, the distance from a station at NE 8th Street to 108th Street in downtown Bellevue would be only slightly more than a half mile.

4The term rapid transit has traditionally referred to high speed, high capacity, high frequency urban rail lines that run entirely on their own rights of way (i.e., some combination of underground, on elevated structures and on the ground). Station dwell times are minimized through such means as high platforms and fare payment in stations. Examples include the New York City subway system, the Chicago El, BART in the San Francisco Bay Area and Skytrain in Vancouver, BC. Sound Transit's new light rail line is not rapid transit for a variety of reasons including that it will have extensive street running and will have to operate in mixed traffic with buses in the downtown transit tunnel.

5This is a main reason that numerous cities around the U.S. and throughout the world are launching new rail transit services -- and upgrading existing ones instead of replacing them with buses. Were it to even be suggested that such services be replaced by so-called bus rapid transit, there would be howls of protest. The Eastside is one of the few high income, high tech areas in the U.S. that does not have commuter rail, and a continuation of this situation could likely begin to have serious effects on its quality of life, attractiveness for new businesses and economic vitality as traffic congestion and air quality continue to worsen.

6For example, Julia Patterson, chair of the PSRC's Transportation Policy Board and the person in charge of that organization's severely flawed BNSF Corridor Preservation Study, was quoted in the April 27, 2007 Seattle Times article Sound Transit to look into BNSF line as saying: "the existing route is single-tracked, so it couldn't be used for transit as is."

Likewise, King County Executive Ron Sims, the leading proponent of scrapping the railroad, said during his interview on KUOW on December 20, 2007:

Right now, no matter what ever you do with the corridor, it's only going to be one way. It can't be a two way corridor, and so there's some challenges trying to figure. And the only way you can make it a two way corridor is actually begin to do some condemnation of adjacent properties...
The comment about condemning adjacent properties may have been intended to generate opposition to transit use of the rail line by residents along the right of way.

7For example, Ron Sims brought this up during his KUOW interview.

8For more about grade crossings, see The Eastside Railroad and Grade Crossings, Eastside Rail Now!, October 2, 2007.

9Best known is the P811, which is a highly automated track renewal system that moves forward on existing rails and leaves completely new track at its trailing end. Among its operations are (a) pulling the spikes from the old rails, (b) moving the old rails to the sides of the trackbed, (c) replacing the old ties with new concrete ties, (d) placing the new rails on the new ties and (e) fastening the new rails to the new ties. The cost of using the P811 to upgrade the track on the Eastside railroad has been estimated at about $800,000 per mile, inclusive of new rail and ties.

10For example, Ron Sims said in his KUOW interview: "It is Burlington Northern Santa Fe, so it's in very, very poor shape."

11This was stated by a speaker at a meeting about the railroad sponsored by Cascadia Center in January 2008.

12This is according to King County's web site.

13The Cascadia Bicycle Club, which has been one of Ron Sims' chief allies in his effort to scrap the railroad, has been pushing for a monstrous 23-foot width bicycle trail, which could severely damage both the scenic value of the right of way and its use as a linear nature preserve.

14In addition to removing the tunnel that the southbound lanes of I-405 use to pass under the railroad and thereby sever the track, the new plans also call for the construction of a light weight bridge over the freeway at that point for a trail, but not a heavier bridge that could be used by the railroad.

15It is not at all clear what any savings could be. Estimates have ranged from less than $10 million to more than $30 million.

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This page created February 16, 2008.
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