August 11, 2007
The Spirit of Washington dinner train reluctantly made its last run on the Eastside on July 31 (and moved, at least temporarily, to Tacoma), because Burlington Northern refused to renew its lease.
This cessation of service is particularly bad news for downtown Renton, but it is not good for the rest of the Eastside either. Worse yet, it was completely unnecessary. It was not done to benefit the region; rather, it is part of the carefully planned program of downgrading the Eastside railroad and removing all traffic from it in order to facilitate its scrapping.
The immediate excuse for not renewing the lease was that work needs to be done on the Cedar River rail bridge just to the northeast of downtown Renton. The slightly longer-term excuse is that the line will be cut at Wilburton Tunnel in Bellevue in the coming months because of the I-405 freeway widening.
Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) had apparently originally intended to keep the railroad intact while widening the freeway, as is a standard practice in such projects. However, it appears that certain local government officials who are intent on scrapping the railroad persuaded WSDOT to change its plans, as a way of making most of the railroad useless and thereby facilitating its removal. Clever, huh?
The bridge over the Cedar River is being rebuilt with increased clearances so that Boeing will be able to ship its largest aircraft fuselages to its Renton assembly plant via the section of track through downtown Renton and will thus no longer have to send them via the main part of the railroad that starts in Snohomish and runs through Kirkland and Bellevue. This removes one more big obstacle to scrapping the line.
Such a scheme is nothing new. There is a long history of major U.S. railroads downgrading and eliminating service on their unwanted branch lines in order to facilitate getting government permission to abandon them. In this case, Burlington Northern has been happily cooperating with King County Executive Ron Sims and others, apparently in return for promises of other favors.
The dinner train has been a major attraction for the Eastside since 1992. It employed a full time staff of 80 persons and contributed more than $10 million annually to the local economy.
A few people have argued that any government agency (new or specially created) that eventually acquires the railroad would be subsidizing a private business if it allowed the dinner train to operate. However, in reality, the opposite would likely be the case. This is illustrated by the fact the owner of the train, Eric Temple, is on record as stating that he would be able and willing to pay rent for the use of the railroad as well as perform maintenance on the tracks.
This unnecessary loss is just another example of the lack of concern about this region by the handful of people who have been devoting so much time (at taxpayer expense) to trying to scrap the railroad. Fortunately, it is still possible for the dinner train to be brought back to Renton (or a second one to be started there), at least if the removal of the tracks is prevented.
Return to main blog page