FAQ: Freight Service

Q: Is the Eastside railroad still being used for freight?

A: Yes, it is currently being used most days of the week for freight trains that service about a dozen customers along the route. Customers include Boeing (aircraft fuselages), Safeway (food products), Weyerhaeuser (specialized paper and wax), Spectrum Glass (sand and potash), Plywood Supply (plywood) and BlueLinx (building products).

Q: Is there another freight role for the Eastside railroad in addition to just serving local industries?

A: Yes. The railroad also serves as a bypass for the only other north-south railroad route west of the Cascade mountains. That route, likewise owned by Burlington Northern, runs through a century-old tunnel under downtown Seattle and along the coast north of Seattle to Everett. The Eastside railroad is used occasionally for shipments that are too large to fit through that tunnel. It also serves as insurance against the possibility of blockage to the Seattle route, such as from a major earthquake that damages the tunnel or causes major landslides along the coastal section. The tunnel could also be damaged from a derailment and fire. Although such tunnel incidents are rare, they occasionally happen, and when they do, they can be catastrophic. The tunnel under Seattle is particularly vulnerable because it lacks modern safety features.

Q: Is it practical to haul freight on the same system that is used for transit?

A: Yes. In fact, it was very common in the past, and it is even being done on some new light rail systems that utilize existing railroads, including those in San Diego, Baltimore and New Jersey. Providing a freight service can be profitable and help pay for the transit service; it also helps keep trucks off the roads, thereby reducing congestion, damage to roads and air pollution.

Q: Has Burlington Northern been discouraging local industries from using the line in recent years?

A: It is possible, although no evidence for this has surfaced to date. Discouraging businesses from using a rail line in order to facilitate abandonment has been typical behavior by large railroads for decades. However, such unwanted branch lines are often eventually sold to small companies to operate as short lines, which are frequently able to make them profitable by reducing costs and encouraging new freight use.

Q: Is there any opposition from freight shippers to King County's plan to remove the tracks.

A: Yes, there has been considerable opposition from shippers, along with opposition from the popular Spirit of Washington dinner train owner and employees, environmentalists, rail transit advocates and others. Shippers have opposed the move because it would greatly increase their costs if they had to use trucks instead of rail cars to ship their inputs or products. Some industries dependent on the railroad might even have to shut down or relocate.

Q: What has King County done about this opposition?

A: It has stated that it will retain the section of track from Woodinville north to Shonomish. Most of the shippers are concentrated along this section. This has greatly reduced opposition from shippers to removing the rails from the section of track from Renton to Woodinville, as compared with the opposition to the County's original proposal to dismantle the entire line.

Q: What about shippers located elsewhere along the railroad.

A: There are several major shippers located in Bellevue's industrial district. One of them, Weyerhaeuser, has about 125 employees at a specialty box manufacturing facility and has opposed the removal of the track. Using trucks instead of trains would result in a very large increase in its cost of bringing in raw materials.

Q: How safe is the section of track from Woodinville to Snohomish from dismantling by King County?

A: After the rails have been removed from the rest of the railroad (i.e., from Renton to Snohomish), it will be much easier for King County to remove the track from Woodinville to Snohomish. This is because the possibility of using the railroad as the basis for a low cost and easy to implement transit system for the Eastside will have been lost, and thus most of the opposition to removing the remaining segment of track will have vanished. The industries located along the Woodinville to Snohomish segment will, without support from the rest of the Eastside, have very little political clout with King County in its relentless drive to entirely eliminate the railroad.

Q: Were King County to purchase the Eastside railroad from Burlington Northern but leave the tracks intact, would anybody be willing to operate the freight service?

A: Most likely yes. There have been numerous cases in which large railroad companies have sold off branch lines to government agencies and then they are operated for the government agency by a small company under contract. There are even more cases in which a large railroad sells a branch line to a small company which operates it as a short line. It could easily be done here, but several King County officials have an overriding goal of removing the railroad and are not concerned about using it.

Q: Is there potential for increasing freight service on the line?

A: Yes, it might be possible to convince some former shippers along the line to begin using the railroad again. There have been numerous cases around the U.S. of new management taking over the operation of branch lines and increasing their freight business. Among the ways that this can be accomplished are improving service, aggressive marketing and lowering costs.

Q: Would a large increase in fuel prices affect usage of the railroad for freight?

A: It is likely that oil prices will continue their rapid rise as a result of the slowing rate of discovery of major new oil deposits and soaring demand from China and India. Because rail transport is much more fuel-efficient than truck transport, this could lead to a large shift in freight transport from trucks to trains. Such a shift could also be brought about by a prolonged cutoff of foreign oil supplies or the decision to make a major reduction in emissions to combat global climate change. The Eastside could be at a severe disadvantage if it no longer had its railroad.

Q: Some visionaries want Bellevue to eventually become a great city, sort of "the Manhattan of the West." Is is possible to have such a city without a railroad?

A: There are few if any truly great cities in the world that do not have a railroad. In fact, most such cities have numerous rail lines with intense freight and passenger service. Bellevue is unlikely to become the exception.

Q: Where can more information be obtained about the current and potential future freight usage of the Eastside railroad?

A: Please visit the page Eastside Railroad Freight.

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This page created March 5, 2007. Updated March 25, 2007.
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