The Eastside Railroad

Map of Eastside Rail
(click to enlarge)
The Eastside railroad (officially referred to as the Woodinville Subdivision1) is a rail line that runs in a generally north-south direction through Seattle's heavily populated and rapidly growing eastern suburbs as well as through the southern third of Snohomish County. It is the only remaining north-south rail line east of the Cascades other than Burlington Northern's heavily used and vulnerable main line through downtown Seattle.

The Eastside railroad begins south of Seattle in Tukwila, where it branches off from Burlington Northern's main line that connects Seattle and Tacoma.2 It then runs in a generally eastern direction to downtown Renton, after which it turns north for the remainder of its route. The southern half of the main line runs roughly parallel to both the eastern shore of Lake Washington and the I-405 freeway. It passes through or near most major destinations on the Eastside, including downtown Bellevue, which has the second largest urban core in Washington State and is in the midst of a massive construction boom.

Partial view of downtown Bellevue
Booming downtown Bellevue (click to enlarge)
In contrast to the highly urbanized southern portion of the route, the northern third in Snohomish County traverses a primarily rural area. It ends in the City of Snohomish, where there is a track connection3 with the Burlington Northern main line that runs between Everett and Eastern Washington.

In addition, there is a branch line that runs approximately five miles from Woodinville southeast to downtown Redmond. This line formerly extended all the way to Issaquah. However, the section along the eastern shore of Lake Sammamish was scrapped in 1998 by King County (despite vigorous protests by nearby residents) for the stated purpose of constructing a trail on its roadbed. There is also a short branch heading northwest from downtown Woodinville that is a remnant of the former line that extended into Seattle via what is now the Burke-Gilman trail.

The Eastside railroad is mostly single tracked. However, there are several passing sidings (as well as a number of spurs to nearby industries) along the route, including in Renton, Bellevue, Woodinville and Redmond. The track is generally in fair-to-good condition, and is typical of that of a secondary main line. However, some sections have recently been, or are in the process of being, upgraded, including with the installation of continuously welded rail, new ties and new bridges.4

A major feature of the railroad is its generous right of way, most of which has a width of about 100 feet. This is more than sufficient for constructing additional passing sidings, or even for adding a second track, and still having room left over for other uses, such as a linear nature preserve and possibly a trail. Another feature is the highly diverse scenery along the route, including the spectacular Wilburton Trestle, Lake Washington, and skyline views of downtown Seattle and Bellevue.

Completed in 1891, the railroad has always been used mainly for freight service. The freight volume has declined over the years, and today only about a dozen customers remain along the line. Most of them are located in and north of Woodinville, although there was still some local freight activity in Bellevue as of early 2008. The largest customer is Boeing, which relies on the railroad to ship its 737 fuselages to its plant in north Renton for final assembly.

The railroad was also used daily by the very popular and profitable Spirit of Washington dinner train until July 31, 2007. That train was forced to suspend operations because Burlington Northern, the line's owner, refused to renew its lease as part of the plan to rid the line of traffic in order to facilitate its scrapping.5

In 2003 Burlington Northern announced its intention to sell the railroad, with the exception of the section from Tukwila to Milepost 5, which is north of downtown Renton and near Gene Coulon Park along Lake Washington. The officially stated reason was declining freight revenues and rising maintenance costs, although this may not have been the full story.6 This announcement was followed by a long-running effort by King County Executive Ron Sims to have the County acquire the railroad in order to remove the tracks and replace them with a bicycle trail.

In 2005 King County entered into exclusive negotiations with Burlington Northern to acquire the railroad. In February 2007 Sims and the former Port of Seattle CEO Mic Dinsmore jointly announced a complex, three-way deal in which the Port would purchase the railroad from Burlington Northern and then trade it to the County for conversion into a bicycle trail in return for transferring Boeing Field (also called King County Airport) from the County to the Port. Also included in the deal as an incentive for Burlington Nortthern's cooperation were promises of financial support for enlarging its Stampede Pass tunnel through the Cascade Mountains to permit the passage of double-stack container trains and of cooperation on establishing a major new train-truck transfer facility south of Seattle.

This plan generated a great deal of controversy,7 both about the trade itself and about the desirability of scrapping the railroad. Among the questions asked were how there could be any benefit to the County from trading away a strategic airport valued at more than $400 million (and perhaps as much as $1 billion based on the sales prices of nearby properties) for a bicycle trail. Questions were also asked as to why it was so urgent to scrap a railroad that paralleled the most congested freeway in the entire U.S. Northwest and that passed through or near most major destinations on the rapidly growing Eastside while other cities across the country have been restoring their rail lines and starting commuter rail service on them.

Fortunately, this proposal was firmly rejected in July 2007 with the Port's new Executive Director Tay Yoshitani's statement during the first major speech of his tenure that "...it doesn't make sense..." Subsequently, in November, a new deal was announced in which the Port would first purchase the railroad and later consider some unspecified arrangement to lease or sell part of it to King County.

On December 11, the Port Commissioners voted unanimously to purchase the railroad intact, in defiance of Sims' plea that the tracks be removed prior to purchase. In a face saving gesture to Sims, the Port stated that the County would have the option to purchase the two segments (from north Renton to south Bellevue and from Woodinville to Redmond) should the Port decide to sell them.8 However, it emphasized that the future of the railroad would be decided through a "public process."9

Although the purchase by the Port has been a big step forward in saving the railroad, there is still another threat on the horizon. It is the mysterious reversal by the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) of its original plan to keep the railroad intact at Wilburton Tunnel (located just south of the Wilburton Trestle and downtown Bellevue) during its widening of the I-405 freeway. Instead, WSDOT decided to sever the railroad at that point, with the reason being given that it would save several tens of millions of dollars.10 Removal of the top of the tunnel is currently scheduled for the first half of 2008.11 It is not a normal practice for rail lines to be cut during freeway widening, just as it is not normal for pipelines, electric transmission lines or other utilities to be cut. It is also strange that WSDOT has plans to construct a bridge over the freeway at the point for a trail instead of for the railroad.

1This name derives from the fact that Woodinville was originally one of the endpoints of the rail line. It is used by Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) crews and on official documents. The most commonly used name is "the BNSF rail line." Eastside Rail Now! uses the term "the Eastside railroad" because it is more descriptive and because Burlington Northern will divest itself of most of the line during 2008.

2The track joins the Burlington Northern main line at Black River Junction in Tukwila with a curve to the northwest. This is part of a former wye junction that also included a curve to the southwest. In addition, there was a parallel line slightly to the south that also had a wye junction with the main line. Reinstallation of one of these curves to the southwest would allow trains to operate directly from the Eastside through the Kent Valley to Tacoma and points south.

3As the rail line approaches the Snohomish River and downtown Snohomish from the south, it divides into three branches. The ones to the left and right connect to the Burlington Northern main line. The center one rises on an embankment to pass over the main line and the river on trestles and then enter the built-up portion of Snohomish slightly to the east of the historic downtown.

4A major upgrade of the track from Tukwila to north Renton was begun in the second half of 2007 and is scheduled for completion in the first half of 2008. It consists of rebuilding several railroad bridges, including that over the Cedar River northeast of downtown Renton and those over several Renton roads, and installation of new track. The purpose of the Cedar River bridge portion of this costly project is to allow Boeing's largest 737 fuselages to be shipped via Tukwila and through downtown Renton rather than on the main section of the railroad in order to allow scrapping of that section. That now-replaced truss bridge was just slightly too narrow to accommodate those fuselages. The several tens of millions of dollars cost was divided among WSDOT, Burlington Northern and Boeing. There has also been some upgrading of track north of downtown Woodinville, including the installation of continuous welded rail and new road crossings.

5The publicly stated reason for refusing to renew the dinner train's lease was the planned reconstruction of the Cedar River bridge just north of downtown Renton. However, the reason for the reconstruction of that bridge was to allow Boeing's fuselages to be shipped via the southern portion of the line through downtown Renton so that the rest of the railroad could be scrapped.

6According to some sources, the plan for the sale may have actually been initiated by those intent on scrapping the railroad rather than by Burlington Northern, and the promises of assistance for enlarging the railroad's Stampede Pass tunnel and for constructing a truck-train transfer facility could have been provided as incentives to agree to such a sale. For example, James F. Vesely's editorial page column It's not about the dinner, it's about carrying the freight in the June 19, 2005 issue of the Seattle Times quotes an e-mail from Eric Temple, owner of the dinner train, that states that it was really King County that brought up the idea of scrapping the railroad, and it was "not BNSF's desire nor some financial necessity that was driving this." It also quotes Temple as pointing out that there is sufficient existing and potential freight traffic on the line for a specialist in operating short line railroads to be interested in taking it over.

7This plan also led to the formation of Eastside Rail Now!, a Bellevue-based grassroots organization which has worked actively to both stop the proposed scrapping of the railroad and utilize it as the core of a regional commuter rail service.

8Sims had originally hoped to scrap the entire railroad north of Milepost 5. However, strong pressure from shippers on the section from Woodinville north as well as from the City of Snohomish forced him to relent on scrapping that portion. Approval of the airport swap deal would have given a major boost to his plan to scrap the rest of the railroad (i.e., from Woodinville south to Milepost 5), although the opposition would have likely been even stronger than that encountered with the East Lake Sammamish line. With the Port's rejection of that deal and the County's lack of funds to purchase the entire railroad, Sims' most recent strategy has been to attempt to acquire just segments of the railroad and then remove the track on those sections. This would make the railroad basically useless for commuter rail and emergency freight use and thereby facilitate his ultimate objective of having the entire railroad scrapped.

Although the official reason for the supposed urgency of scrapping the railroad has been in order to construct bicycle trails on its roadbed, this might not be the full explanation for Sims' obsession. One indication of this is the fact that the two segments that he is now trying to acquire are already paralleled by trails. Also, the section that was scrapped along the eastern shore of Lake Sammamish supposedly for construction of a bicycle trail was never paved into a trail that is suitable for most bicycles but just remains a rough gravel trail.

There are major obstacles to Sims' current strategy of initial acquiring and scrapping just portions of the railroad. One is that approval would be necessary not only by the Port Commission but also by the King County Council, neither of which is a certainty. Another is obtaining the many tens of millions of dollars that would be required for the purchase, track removal and trail construction. For many years the County has been short of funds to even maintain existing parks and trails' and thus it has had to defer maintenance and resort to closing some parks.

In addition, there are provisions in Washington state law that can prevent the removal of rail lines without adequate study of their potential for passenger and freight use. No such study has been made for the Eastside railroad, at least in recent years, other than the Puget Sound Regional Council's severely flawed -- and thus basically irrelevant -- BNSF Corridor Preservation Study.

9This contrasts sharply with the opaque backroom deals promoted by Dinsmore and Sims, some of which are now coming back to haunt the Port, Dinsmore and others. Sims has worked feverishly to have the railroad scrapped without a public process because he is well aware of the strong and growing opposition to his plan on the part of both the public and much of the political leadership.

10There does not seem to be any consensus about the size of the savings, for which estimates have ranged from under $10 million to more than $30 million. However, it is clear that any savings would be extremely small in comparison to the multi-billion dollar cost of the freeway widening project as well as to the great loss to the region from the loss of use of the railroad.

11The railroad passes under the northbound lanes of I-405 in a tunnel, and the southbound lanes of I-405 pass under the railroad in a tunnel. WSDOT's original plan was to either widen the tunnel under the railroad or to remove the top of the tunnel and construct a bridge for the railroad over the freeway lanes.

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This page created January 4, 2007. Last updated February 7, 2008.
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