‘Gang’ Wants To Test Train on Track

Published in The Seattle Times

A group turning to trains to improve transportation in Snohomish County has set its sights on a little-used rail line on the Eastside.

The group, made up of residents and elected leaders and backed by the Seattle-based Discovery Institute’s Cascadia Project, is trying to bring a new kind of high-speed rail car to the Puget Sound region.

Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway’s Renton-to-Snohomish line, which the railroad is interested in selling, would be a perfect place to demonstrate the technology, said Bruce Agnew, program director for Cascadia, a project focused on transportation involving Washington, Oregon and British Columbia.

“The Eastside line is an urgent situation; we need to keep it in public ownership,” Agnew said.

Using the line for the coaches, being built by Colorado Railcar of Fort Lupton, Colo., would be a way to “test their marketability and get people to talk about it,” he said. “And it would be totally temporary.”

The Eastside line is used mostly by the Spirit of Washington Dinner Train, which makes up to nine trips a week during the summer. The tracks also are used for light freight.

The group, nicknamed the Farmhouse Gang, plans to apply for federal funding next spring that could help to place the train in a local pilot project, Agnew said. The temporary demonstration line would appeal to commuters and tourists, he said.

The group, whose members represent communities from Everett to Blaine, plans to work with Cascadia in the next year to shop the idea to residents and leaders of Eastside communities.

The idea, however, faces several hurdles besides funding, Agnew said: The group behind the idea would have to buy the track from Burlington Northern or get the railroad to rent the line or give it rights to use the line; the group would need an agency sponsor such as Sound Transit or the state Department of Transportation (DOT) to get federal funding; improvements might have to be made to the line and crossings; and the concept would need community support.

At a recent Everett meeting that brought more than 50 regional leaders together to talk about trains, Colorado Railcar representative and former Mercer Island resident Tom Janaky explained that the rail vehicle uses one-sixth the fuel of a regular locomotive.

It can run at up to 90 mph and, unlike a light-rail unit, can use the existing track. The Farmhouse Gang, formally called the North Sound Connecting Communities Project, also is planning for the 2010 Winter Olympics in British Columbia.

Members hope to take pressure off Interstate 5 by expanding Amtrak Cascades service north of Seattle through work with federal, state and local agencies, and perhaps through a partnership with Canada.

The group is not the only entity interested in the Eastside rail line. Regional leaders and transportation planners have long viewed the tracks, part of which wends along the east side of Lake Washington, as a potential location for high-capacity transit such as light rail. Private parties could make a bid for it as well.

Last year, Burlington Northern approached DOT to gauge its interest in buying the 40-mile line. The state then asked the four-county Puget Sound Regional Council, which oversees growth and transportation planning, to spend six months researching future uses.

“So far, everyone generally feels that it would be a terrible shame to lose this right of way,” said King Cushman, regional strategy adviser for the regional council.

He said it’s too early to know specifics, such as what the line would cost, who would buy and manage it, and what it would be used for. One possible option would be to first convert the right of way into a trail under the federal Rails to Trails program, he said.

Cushman said he hadn’t heard about the idea of demonstrating the Colorado Railcar coach on the tracks.

The regional council board will probably receive a report about the research in June.

Natalie Singer: 206-464-2704 or

Seattle Times reporter Peyton Whitely contributed to this report.