Eastside BNSF Rail Line Inspection Report
(Contact: Bruce Agnew, Director, Cascadia Center For Regional Development, 206-228-4011).
Retired BNSF Operations Director Read Fay did an on-site visual inspection of the 42-mile long BNSF Eastside rail line between October 1st and November 16th, 2007 for the Discovery Institute’s Cascadia Center to determine the capability of the line to support a safe commuter rail operation at a speed of 40 mph. Fay concluded that: “….this line has the potential to become one of the areas premier commuter lines within the Puget Sound system. It has a solid ridership basis, room for growth and is located in an area that can only be enhanced by additional commuter service. If upgraded to a reliable, dependable corridor, its value will only increase as the area grows around it. Couple the commuter line with a state of the art bike/hiking trail, and eastside residents will be the owners of the area’s premier transportation corridor.” Costs were preliminarily estimated by Fay as follows: tie and rail replacement, $33.6 million ($800,000 per mile X 42 miles); bridge replacement, $3.42 million(1,140 feet of bridge at $3,000 per foot). Other costs are yet to be determined, including stations; equipment plus storage and repair facilities; project EIS and engineering.
EASTSIDE BNSF RAIL LINE INSPECTION REPORT
Read Fay, for Discovery Institute’s Cascadia Center, Nov. 21, 2007.
This inspection of the 42-mile long BNSF Eastside rail line was done between October 1st and November 16th, 2007 for the Discovery Institute’s Cascadia Center to determine the capability of the line to support a safe commuter rail operation. The inspection noted rail, tie, bridge and alignment details, with attention given to the various classes of service and level of upgrade needed to support that class. Subgrade and ballast conditions were of particular note as this line has been maintained to the absolute minimum required to achieve class II for quite some time.
I broke the line into three parts: Renton to Bellevue, Bellevue to Woodinville, and Woodinville to Snohomish Jct. West. Each segment has its own varying characteristics and operational uniqueness, but for the most part, each requires significant upgrades to the roadbed and rail. In conversations with the operating officers of BNSF rail, all customers within this line are or will be moved by January, 2008, so the freight component for this subdivision will be removed. As soon as the bridge over the Cedar River is complete, there will be no additional freight service needed to move Boeing airplane parts to the Renton plant; access will be available by way of Black River Jct. south of Renton. With the removal of freight from the line north of Renton, the subdivision becomes a one entity operation.
Section 1: Renton to Bellevue
This portion of the line is probably in the best shape from the maintenance prospective of the three segments. Ties appear to be solid, with numerous joint ties having been installed in the past few years, no doubt as a result of the track geometry car inspections that are done on a yearly basis. If this segment were to be upgraded with new ties and rail, I believe the replacement rate for ties would be in the 1500 tie per mile range. There are still markings from past track car inspections that indicate suspect ride quality and while the roadbed supports class II for freight, running a safe commuter rail operation would require upgrades to rail, ballast and otm (on track material). Ballast condition is fair, but signs of mud pumping into the ballast and poor drainage are signs of a deteriorating roadbed. This portion of the subdivision was maintained the best as it supported the bulk of the freight traffic within the line for many years. Within this segment there is one major crossing and 17 private or minor crossings, most of which would require some sort of overhaul or total replacement. Track surface is fair at best, but with the lack of adequate ballast, it is difficult to keep ride quality at a level to achieve good commuter rideability. As for track alignment, there are several sharp curves, especially between milepost 3 and 4, and coupled with the close terrain and large roadbed fills, new alignments will be difficult to achieve. HDR’s 2007 report to the Puget Sound Regional Council, while only using estimates in lieu of field studies, does indicate that the costs for roadbed re-alignments would substantially increase project costs.
Section 2: Bellevue to Woodinville
This segment is highlighted by 12 major and 6 minor road crossings, most of which are in good to excellent condition. Located largely within Bellevue, this 11 mile segment features less curvature and grade, but as you proceed North toward Snohomish Jct., the ballast, rail and tie condition become more suspect.
There has been some rail replacement in recent years, milepost 12 to 14, but for the most part it is 100 pound rail that is 50 to 60 years old. Ballast condition is significantly poorer than in the Renton to Bellevue segment and tie condition, while ties appear to be good from a visional prospective, are weak from bottom side rot and would require a 75% replacement rate if rehabbed. At 3300 ties to a mile, I estimate that 1800 to 2600 ties per mile would need to be replaced. With tie replacement at this level needed, the cost would suggest that total replacement with the P-811 using 141 pound rail and concrete ties could be justified, using a private contractor at a cost of roughly $800,000.00 per mile. This type of replacement would also support future maintenance costs and would alleviate the need for using second hand OTM (on track material) and reduce maintenance to yearly spot-tamping while improving drainage of the existing roadbed.
Also of note in this segment are several areas for bank stabilization. Property development has invaded the cuts within this segment and has affected the drainage ditches within the right of way. While this is not an immediate concern for freight traffic now on the line, commuter rail operations should take a different view of this encroachment. Another advantage of tie replacement using the P-811, substantial material is recovered from the old roadbed for use as shoulder enhancement. Several locations within this segment have little to no shoulder ballast which leads to a deterioration of track surface and allows for more track movement, bringing mud into the ballast section. Bridges in this segment are in good condition, with the largest being the bridge over the Sammamish River. Some minor upgrades in the form of end caps and spot tamping the approaches would support a safe commuter operation.
Section 3: Woodinville to Snohomish Jct. West
This segment would require the bulk of the attention before starting and running a safe commuter operation. Ballast, ties and rail are woefully inadequate on this segment of the subdivision. Of the 12 miles between Woodinville and the Jct., major ballast and shoulder widening would need to be done on 80% of the roadbed.
Ties in this segment would need to be replaced at the 85-90% rate before starting the commuter operation. HDR is correct regarding the re-alignments and there is sufficient roadbed and right of way to accomplish this type of upgrade without much property acquisition. With these re-alignments and upgrades, addition speeds could be gained but the speed increases may be offset by the number of passenger stops and elevation changes. The rail is mostly 112 pound bolted and coupled with the lack of ballast in this segment, major undercutting or p-811 work would need to be done prior to startup. Bridges need to be upgraded in this segment to accept the higher speeds generated by the re-alignments and roadbed rehab. This line segment has the most potential for development, but that development will be several years in the making. As a north end terminus, growth would be immediate from the Snohomish/Everett area, then spreading southward toward Woodinville.
This line, in its present condition, cannot support a safe commuter rail operation without significant rail, tie and roadbed upgrades. With the knowledge that the last existing rail served businesses will be removed from the line by January, 2008, then planning could go forward for a trail/commuter line, with the only exception being the dinner train, that has temporarily ceased operations, but could return in some form or fashion at a later date. The HDR report is basically a sound investigation of the facts known at the time and supports the facts of several different scenarios coupled with projected line upgrades. One thing missing from the analysis is a location to store and service commuter equipment, whether it is Sounder type rail service, DMU type or light rail used as elevated HCT equipment.
With the elimination of the last remaining businesses in Bellevue and Kirkland, the long freight sidings will no longer be of value to the subdivision and can be replaced with smaller commuter friendly sidings that would allow for quicker headway times between trains. As commented in the HDR report, the average speed for most of the commuter trains would be in the 40miles per hour range, thereby requiring track to be maintained to class III standards. Any slower travel times would not be acceptable to the traveling public. With speeds at 40 MPH, turnouts into these sidings will require bigger switches and increased maintenance if not upgraded with bigger rail and ties.
Upgrading this line to acceptable commuter rail service would require major tie and rail replacement. As previously stated, this can best be performed by utilizing the P-811 track laying equipment, replacing rail, ballast and ties at the same time. Using a private contractor, this work should be able to be accomplished for about $800, 000.00 per mile. Unit costs for bridge replacement using steel pilings and concrete tubs are about $3000 per foot. Most bridges would not need total replacement, but I think a fair percentage of bridges that would need some type of upgrade would be 25% or 1140 feet of bridge replacement/repair. When upgrading bridges using steel piling and pre-cast concrete tubs, bridges are changes from open deck stringer type to ballast deck bridges which allows for less upkeep and maintenance. As stated in the HDR report, bank widening, bank stabilization and retaining walls to support various cuts throughout the subdivision will need to be addressed prior to commuter start up. Additional field engineering will need to be done to finalize a solid budget proposal.
It is my belief that this line has the potential to become one of the area’s premier commuter lines within the Puget Sound system. It has a solid ridership basis, room for growth and is located in an area that can only be enhanced by additional commuter service. If upgraded to a reliable, dependable corridor, its value will only increase as the area grows around it. Couple the commuter line with a state of the art bike/hiking trail, and eastside residents will be the owners of the area’s premier transportation corridor.
“Eastside Commuter Rail An Affordable Regional Asset, Bruce Agnew, Cascadia Prospectus, 11/28/07.
“Study Shows Eastside Rail Line Can Support Interurban Rail,” Cascadia Center, 11/21/07.