The wheels finally are rolling for the reopening of the Stampede Pass across the Cascade Mountains and a long-anticipated third east-west intermodal rail route from the Northwest, but there's still a lot of work to do and money to be spent by Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad.
The tab could come close to $100 million by the time the dust settles and trains are actually moving on the new line by the end of the year or early in 1997.BNSF had been in negotiations with a small eastern Washington rail line for months to regain track usage rights that it abandoned in 1983, but surprised nearly everyone late last week when it announced a $40 million deal to acquire Washington Central Railroad Co. outright.
Instead of a right-of-way deal, Washington Central will merge into BNSF in a tax-free exchange.
BNSF needed access to Washington Central's 319 miles of track, especially sections connecting Auburn, Wash., with Cle Elum, Ellensburg and Kennewick/Pasco, to make the reopening of Stampede Pass a go.
''This is extremely good news, it means we can grow,'' said Paul Chilcote, senior director for planning and budget at the Port of Tacoma.
The prospect that BNSF could put two double-stack trains on the third route later this year was decidedly unanticipated, as was the actual purchase of Washington Central, he said.
The negotiations were long and often testy, observers said, but once the $40 million stock and cash deal is closed this fall, Washington Central, which employs 80, will become a wholly owned BNSF subsidiary. BNSF will own, dispatch and control operations from Cle Elum to its Pasco mainline.
Under the agreement, BNSF has immediate rights to begin repairing Stampede Pass and Washington Central trackage. That likely will cost about $45 million, although company officials did not confirm that number.
The deal does not have to be filed for approval at the Surface Transportation Board, said Richard A. Russack, a BNSF spokesman in Fort Worth.
Robert D. Krebs, BNSF's president and chief executive, said the third route will eliminate ''the greatest impediment to expanding our capacity to meet the growth needs of our customers and the ports.''
Nick Temple, president of Washington Central, went on vacation after the negotiations concluded and was not available for comment.
For the two big containerports in the region, a third rail is crucial and they have pushed for it for years. They handle a total of about 2.5 million containers annually. Over half of those boxes are intermodal shipments destined to the Midwest or East Coast. Intermodal freight through Puget Sound ports is expected to double by 2015.
The other two rail routes in the region, the northern Stevens Pass route and the southern route along the Columbia River gorge, already are operating at close to full capacity.
Stevens Pass is becoming a major intermodal bottleneck that won't be able to accommodate anticipated intermodal growth from the region. It handles 24 eastbound freight trains a day, but BNSF's main east-west route passes through the 7.8-mile Cascade Tunnel. Each train must wait 30 minutes before using the 67-year-old tunnel while giant fans clear it of diesel fumes.
The southern route handles mostly grain and bulk cargoes.
''This puts it all together for us (and) will help us accommodate a major increase in traffic that we expect from our customers,'' said Jack Block, president of the Port of Seattle Commission.