Log in

No account? Create an account
23 October 2006 @ 07:38 am
Dinner train drops Bellevue idea: Future still uncertain for new depot location  
Dinner train drops Bellevue idea: Future still uncertain for new depot location

Matt Brashears/Journal
The Spirit of Washington Dinner Train crosses the Wilburton Trestle in Bellevue on Sunday.

By Dean A. Radford
Journal Reporter

The city of Bellevue is out of the running as a potential jumping-off point for the Spirit of Washington Dinner Train, its owner said.

"It would be a great location," said Eric Temple. "But I couldn't move quickly enough with Bellevue."

Temple has been at risk of losing his track since the BNSF Railway Co. announced months ago it was planning to abandon its rail corridor between Renton and south Snohomish County.

In turn, King County saw a golden opportunity to preserve the 42-mile corridor as open space and potentially as a trail. Under discussion regionally is using the corridor for just a trail or for both a trail and continued freight service.

For 15 years, Temple's trains have departed from downtown Renton, pumping millions of dollars into the local and regional economy.

Woodinville has expressed an interest in hosting him, he said. Woodinville is also home to the Columbia Winery, the dinner train's current destination. Potentially, such a route could end in Snohomish.

Temple announced last month that he will end his service from Renton by the end of July 2007, but at the time Bellevue was still an option for a new depot.

Temple identified potential locations in Bellevue for a depot and parking along the rail line. But none panned out to replace his longtime one in Renton because neither BNSF nor the county could commit to keeping the track in the ground.

A potential sale to the county is likely years away. Temple was left with an uncertain future. His fate became clearer when BNSF announced it planned to abandon a small section of the line at the Wilburton Tunnel in south Bellevue in order to accommodate the widening of Interstate 405.

Essentially, abandonment means BNSF is no longer obligated as a common carrier to provide freight service on that stretch of track, which it still owns. It also still owns the right of way.

However, that doesn't preclude the dinner train from using the track, as long as it has an agreement with BNSF — and the track is in the ground.

Whether BNSF will remove the track, including that part in the freeway project, hasn't been revealed.

Gus Melonas, a BNSF spokesman, said last week the company didn't have any comment.

No matter what, Temple has a powerful ally. Renton city officials want to keep the rail line in service, because they argue it's vital to the local economy. Boeing uses it to transport fuselages for its 737-900 jetliner to its plant in Renton.

And the dinner train has pumped millions of dollars into the regional economy over the past 14 years.

Renton Mayor Kathy Keolker told the federal board in a letter last month that the city "strongly supports" retaining the railroad line.

The ability to move freight in both directions without interruption ensures there is a backup if for some reason a portion of the line becomes unusable, the city argues.

That break in the line at the Wilburton Tunnel also means that Boeing will have to bring the fuselages for its 737 jetliner from the south by rail, rather than from the north by rail. To do that, BNSF will need to realign a section of its rail line near the Cedar River in Renton, again forcing a closure of the line for a time.

On the same day last week that BNSF attorneys were filing the abandonment paperwork with the federal Surface Transportation Board, a Renton City Council committee formalized its call for the city to protest the idea.

The Transportation/Aviation Committee will present its report to the full council tonight. Such a protest won't stop the abandonment, unless the city can show that BNSF gave false information in its application.

The option exists, although it hasn't yet been explored by city officials, for Renton to buy the abandoned portion of the rail line.

"We believe that just Eric Temple's business alone could make it (city ownership) viable," said Randy Corman, president of the Renton City Council.

Temple, of Bellevue, has said previously that there is enough business from the freight service and the dinner train to continue operating the rail line. Potentially, he could partner with the city. He already operates rail service in Grant, Yakima and Clark counties.

BNSF indicated it plans to abandon the line by Dec. 8, although it could do so before then. An offer to buy the corridor could come after the abandonment.

Eventually, BNSF wants to rid itself of the entire 42-mile corridor and a spur into Redmond.

Unlike Renton, Bellevue isn't opposed to abandoning what amounts to less than a mile of track, including the spot where the rail line crosses I-405 at the Wilburton Tunnel near Interstate 90.

In a letter to the federal board, Bellevue indicated it doesn't oppose the abandonment, because the right of way remains available for future use as a trail.

The abandonment would benefit the state's transportation department, which is about to start a major widening of I-405, and it could save about $30 million if it didn't have to accommodate rail traffic during construction.

In a letter to the Surface Transportation Board, Temple wrote that he doesn't oppose the abandonment, citing the "important public interest" served by widening the freeway.

Dean Radford covers Renton. He can be reached at dean.radford@kingcountyjournal.com or 253-872-6719.

Last modified: October 23. 2006 12:00AM