FAQ: Acquisition of the Railroad

Q: Who owns the Eastside railroad?

A: The railroad is currently owned and operated by Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, which acquired it from its predecessor the Northern Pacific Railway.

Q: Are the newspaper reports correct that the current situation began because Burlington Northern decided that it wanted to abandon the railroad?

A: No, not necessarily. According to some well-informed sources, the abandonment proposal may actually have been initiated by someone other than the railroad. The incentives to abandon were also sweetened with promises to help Burlington Northern with other projects, including building a major rail-truck transfer facility and enlarging the Stampede Pass Tunnel through the Cascades so that it could accommodate double stack container trains.

Q: What about the newspaper reports that Burlington Northern wants to sell the railroad because it is losing money on it?

The official story has been that Burlington Northern claims that the Eastside railroad is becoming unprofitable because of declining freight revenues and rising maintenance costs. However, this could just be a pretext, as the line still generates substantial revenue from freight service to about a dozen industries located along the line (including frequent shipments for Boeing and Weyerhaeuser) and from the Spirit of Washington dinner train.

Also indicative of the railroad's current or potential profitability is the fact that at least one operator of short line railroads has requested to lease the line from King County if the County acquires it. In addition to operating the line, that company would perform track maintenance and pay the County rent from its profits from the dinner train, the freight service and possibly new services as well. Unfortunately, however, this offer has been rejected by opponents of the railroad because of their desire to scrap it.

The Eastside railroad also has considerable long-term strategic value because of increasing congestion on Burlington Northern's main north-south line through Seattle and the vulnerability of the tunnel and coastal sections of that route to earthquakes and other natural disasters.

Q: Why is Ron Sims so anxious to acquire the railroad?

The official story is that he wants to prevent Burlington Northern from selling the right of way piecemeal in order to use it for a bicycle trail now and to preserve it for possible transit use in the future.

Q: Is this the real reason?

No, there is apparently something else going on that Sims and his staff will not discuss (and deny exists) -- and it has nothing to do with bicycles or using the route for transit. The bicycle trail may just be a convenient excuse to get rid of the railroad while also obtaining support from well-intending bicycle enthusiasts.

Also, once a railroad is converted into a trail, it is virtually impossible politically to reinstall the tracks for transit use. An example would be the impossibility of trying to restore the railroad that once ran on what is now the Burke-Gilman trail. Some King County officials have also claimed that the mostly 100 foot right of way is not suitable for transit and that any transit in that corridor should instead be constructed on an elevated structure above the I-405 freeway. They have also claimed that there is little if any demand for rail transit in the corridor, and thus any rail transit in it should be built only after Sound Transit's light rail line to the Eastside is completed in the year 2027 (two decades from now).

Q: What would be the selling price for the railroad?

A: According to some sources, railroad branch lines are usually sold for a maximum of one million dollars per mile. However, a purchase price of around $103 million has been mentioned in the media for the 47 mile Eastside railroad. An additional approximately $66 million would be spent to remove the tracks on most of the line and replace them with a bicycle trail.

Q: Is this what it would actually cost King County to obtain the railroad?

A: No. The actual cost to the King County government could be far greater. The proposed purchase involves a rather complex three-way deal in which the Port of Seattle would first purchase the railroad and then transfer it to King County in exchange for King County Airport (also known as Boeing Field). The airport, which is heavily used for air freight and general aviation, plays an important role in the local economy and has recently become profitable. It is located on a very large and strategically located piece of land and is worth a minimum of $400 million and perhaps as much as $1 billion (on the basis of recent sales of nearby land and improvements).

It should be kept in mind that the total cost to the region would be far greater than this, were the deal to go through. This is because the use of the railroad for transit (a purpose for which it is very well suited) would likely be lost to the region for decades, if not forever. This would mean fewer alternatives for mobility, greater air pollution and increased output of greenhouse gasses.

Q: Does this mean that, in effect, King County would be trading its heavily used and strategic billion dollar airport for a bicycle trail that would be used by a few hundred riders per day?

A: Yes. And the trail would be used by even fewer riders when it rains.

Q: There appears to be something seriously wrong with this situation, and it looks like it could represent a loss of hundreds of million dollars for the taxpayers as well as the loss of a strategically located railroad and other problems. What is going on?

A: Yes, there is definitely something very wrong with this deal. It is clearly not in the public interest, despite attempts to make it look like it is. And there has been no sensible official explanation. In fact, it appears that it was hoped that the complexity and the initially heralded "creativity" of the proposed three-way deal would obscure its strange details so that nobody would notice them and the whole thing would go through with little opposition.

Q: Why couldn't a similar deal be made but just keep the railroad intact and allow the current railroad operations to continue instead of ripping out the tracks?

A: Such a deal could be made and it could have some important advantages. Also, there is plenty of room to construct a trail on the mostly 100 foot width right of way parallel to the existing single track or even parallel to multiple tracks. However, this would be an uphill battle, as the main objective of Ron Sims appears is get rid of the railroad.

Q: Is there any other way that the railroad could be brought into public ownership if Burlington Northern wants to sell it.

A: Yes, of course. There are countless examples around the county of railroad branch lines being acquired by regional transportation agencies. In fact, such agencies have been set up in some cities specifically for the purposes of acquiring, operating and maintaining local railroads, often for the purpose of starting commuter rail or other transit services on them. As Sound Transit has shown little interest in the railroad, there is no reason why such an agency could not be established here as well.

Q: Why doesn't Sound Transit want to acquire and operate the railroad?

A: Actually, Sound Transit would be a very logical choice. They have the expertise and the funds. They have also acquired another railroad, which runs from Tacoma south to Lakewood, which they are preparing to use for an extension of their Sounder commuter service. But there are several reasons that Sound Transit might not want to get involved with the Eastside railroad.

One is that at least two of its board members are the same people who are pushing to scrap the Eastside railroad. A second is that Sound Transit wants to give priority to its East Link light rail line to the Eastside and doesn't want the public to be distracted by a competitive project which costs only a tiny fraction of East Link and which could be implemented almost immediately. Sound Transit has a well deserved reputation for liking to spend vast amounts of money on its projects (its light rail system is the most expensive that has ever been built in the U.S.) and the Eastside railroad just does not fit into this pattern.

Q: Would there be any problem with having the railroad acquired by a private sector company rather than some government entity?

A: No. This is also a possibility. In fact, it is very common for small, private sector companies to purchase branch lines that are no longer wanted by major railroads, particularly in rural areas. Often such companies are quite successful in reinvigorating the lines by improving service to freight customers and cutting costs. In some cases they also run dinner trains or other special passenger trains.

One possible problem for the Eastside railroad, however, is that its ultimate destiny is mainly as a commuter and transit railroad with a fairly intensive level of service. Although the existing freight service and dinner train could make the line profitable, an intensive passenger service would most likely require a public subsidy. The need for such a subsidy has been a major factor in the public ownership of urban transit systems almost everywhere else in the U.S. and around the world.

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This page created March 5, 2007. Last updated July 20, 2007.
Copyright © 2007 Eastside Rail Now! All Rights Reserved.