State-owned Rail Seeks Aidby Matthew Weaver
Capital Press, May 31, 2012
Millions needed to fix lines built in 1800s, supporters say
MEDICAL LAKE, Wash. -- Washington wheat growers want to ensure that state-owned railroads remain competitive options for shipping their crop, but the cost of maintaining them may be a sticking point.
State legislators May 23 got to see firsthand how the tracks moved and flexed beneath a train at a crossing outside Medical Lake, Wash., during a tour sponsored by the Washington Association of Wheat Growers.
WAWG president Eric Maier said his organization sees the need for repairs. If state, federal and private investors can work together, it will sustain the line, he said.
"It gives all the different modes of transportation an equal chance of getting the wheat out," Maier said. "We're looking to keep the river, rail and road all viable."
Bob Westby, railway system manager for the state-run Palouse River and Coulee City Railway system, said traffic on the system has increased from 5,182 cars in 2007 to 10,253 in 2011.
The 108-mile CW line from Cheney to Coulee City is in the most need of repair, Westby said, and recently received $4 million from the Washington State Department of Commerce.
"These lines were originally constructed in the late 1800s," he said. "Obviously, the trains that traveled the lines then were not even close to the trains we use now."
Rep. Mike Armstrong, R-Wenatchee, the ranking minority member on the House Transportation Committee, said the state must continue to invest in the CW line. He estimated it will take $12 million to improve the railroad. Trains can go no faster than 10 mph because of the condition of the tracks. Ideally, he said he'd like to see the rail improved to run trains at 25 mph.
Armstrong said the CW line moved 5,000 to 5,500 carloads of wheat this year. A hopper car has a capacity of 3,600 bushels of wheat, according to the Washington Grain Commission.
Much of the problem lies with the railroad ties, the ballast -- crushed rock beneath the ties -- and the size of the rails, Armstrong said.
"A lot of the ties are in pretty sad shape," he said.
Derailments on the CW Branch April 18 west of Reardan, Wash., and April 27 east of Davenport, Wash., demonstrate the need for rehabilitation, Westby said.
Total system rehabilitation would cost about $50 million over a decade, according to Westby. The system totals 297 miles, with 20 miles between Colfax and Pullman out of operation due to a trestle fire in 2006. Westby said the state is assessing whether to put it back into operation.
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