FAQ: Track Condition

Q: When discussing the Eastside railroad, newspaper articles and public officials almost always state that the tracks are in "poor" condition. Is this really the case?

A: No. It is not correct, and it is very misleading.

Q: What is "poor" condition?

A: "Poor" track condition is characterized by one or more of the following: severely worn rails, visually obvious unevenness in the rails, deviations in the rail gauge, vertical cracks in the rails, rotting ties, numerous missing spikes, missing fishplates (which are used to connect rails), lack of ballast and subsidence of the roadbed. Such track can be found on some branch lines in the U.S. It can still be used, but it is restricted to very slow speeds, such as 5 to 10 mph due to the risk of derailments, and there are often weight restrictions. Clearly, this is very different from the condition of the Eastside railroad.

Q: What is the true condition of the track?

A: The condition of the track on the Eastside railroad varies according to the location. In general, it could be described as "good" to "average" for a secondary main line. It is nowhere near the quality of a primary main line, such as Burlington Northern's line from Seattle to Tacoma, but this is normal for a secondary main line. Actually, some sections are in excellent condition, with heavy, continuously welded rail and new road crossings. There is, however, at least one short section on the currently unused Redmond branch line that might be described as "poor" because the ties are deteriorating.

Q: In practical terms, how useful is the track in its current condition?

A: The track is used daily without problems. It is used by freight trains and by the Spirit of Washington dinner train. The freight trains serve about a dozen industries along the line. This includes transporting Boeing's very valuable and fragile aircraft fuselages to its assembly plant in Renton. The freight service also includes some double stack container trains.

Q: What speeds are possible on the track?

A: The Eastside railroad was not designed as a high speed line, such as the 79 mph that is common on some primary main lines in the U.S or the 100+ mph that is becoming increasingly common in Europe and Japan. There is no need for such speeds on the Eastside. According to train crews and others, the maximum safe speed is about 35 mph over much of the track, which is more than ample for most freight and local passenger service. Even with an average speed of 25 mph, this would be competitive with nearby road traffic during much of the day.

Q: Why is it constantly repeated in the media and by public officials that the tracks are in "poor" condition?

A: This is one of several common erroneous statements about the Eastside railroad. It is often repeated by the media and public officials because it was originally stated by a few King County officials. There is a tendency for people to want to believe what government officials say. Also, railway track is a fairly technical subject and most journalists and government officials have little understanding of it, so it is just easiest for them to repeat what they are told.

Q: Why did some King County officials start saying that the track is in "poor" condition?

A: Because they are eager to take control of the railroad and remove the track for their own political reasons. (For more information, see FAQ: King County's Plan to Dismantle the Railroad.) Alleged poor condition of track has often been used in the past as an excuse to remove track on various rail lines.

Q: Has any government agency actually done a detailed study of the track condition?

A: Eastside Rail Now! has not been able to find any detailed studies of the track condition despite a careful search online. Nor were King County officials able to provide such a report. King Cushman, a planner for the Puget Sound Region Commission, stated in a private conversation that such information was included in the BNSF Corridor Preservation Study website, by the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC), but little useful information was found on that site.

Q: Sound Transit officials claim that the track is not suitable for transit use. Is this correct?

A: The track in its current condition is basically suitable for use for a rail transit pilot project. This is evidenced by the fact that it is already being used daily by passengers on the dinner train with no problems. The speed would be moderate, however, although this would not be a major problem for a demonstration service. The main thing that would be necessary for starting a pilot transit service is the construction of simple platforms at locations where passengers would be boarding and exiting, such as Bellevue, Kirkland and Woodinville.

Q: Why do Sound Transit officials and others state that the track needs major upgrading?

A: Although the track is fine for the current railroad functions (i.e., freight and the dinner train) as well as a pilot transit service, upgrading would allow a smoother ride and faster speeds as well as an intensive frequency of service.

Q: What form would this upgrading take?

A: It would include replacing some ties, adding new ballast in some sections, replacing some rail with heavier, continuously welded rail and improving retaining walls. It might also include adding a simple vehicle storage and maintenance facility as well as additional passing tracks and signals, depending on the frequency of service.

Q: King County officials have stated that all of the track would need to be removed for an upgrading, so that the track might as well be removed now so that the railbed can be used for a bicycle trail until such time that there is "sufficient demand for transit use." Is it true that it would be necessary to rip out the entire railroad in order to upgrade the tracks?

A: No, this is just misinformation perpetuated by some officials who are intent on getting rid of the tracks permanently. It is the normal practice in the railroad industry to upgrade the tracks while a railroad is in operation (just as it is the normal practice to keep roads in operation while upgrading them). It is possible to begin with the worst sections and then move on to other sections as budget and availability of track crews allow.

Some opponents of keeping the track intact have claimed that there is no potential demand for transit service on the railroad. What they fail to mention is that the railroad parallels what is probably the most congested freeway in the entire Northwest and that congestion will likely continue to worsen.

Q: How much would it cost to upgrade the track in order to increase speeds and provide a smoother ride?

A: The answer depends on the extent of upgrading desired. Based on the experience in other cities, a substantial upgrading could be accomplished for roughly $5 million per mile. Assuming that 40 miles of track were upgraded, this would come to about $200 million, which is only slightly more than Sound Transit is spending to construct a single mile of its light rail line in Seattle.

Q: If the track really were in "poor" condition as claimed, would this be a serious problem?

A: No, because the track is clearly in a condition sufficient for its current functions and for a pilot transit service. Moreover, just as is the case with roads, it is always possible to upgrade track.

Q: A least one newspaper article mentioned that the track has "sharp curves." Is this correct?

A: No. Eastside Rail Now! has not been able to find any "sharp curves," only gentle curves. Some of the curves might not be suitable for extremely long and high speed freight trains, but such curves could be reduced (just as road curves can be reduced) if it were decided at some future date to run such trains. The so-called "sharp curves" is just another piece of misinformation about the railroad that has been promoted by some public officials who are intent on removing it.

Home | About | Route | Help | FAQ | Glossary | Index

This page created April 22, 2007.
Copyright © 2007 Eastside Rail Now! All Rights Reserved.