BNSF Railway confirms plans to double track Edmonds in 2023, but key questions remain

The planned double track will replace the two-mile section of single track beginning just north of Point Wells and extending to Edmonds Street, highlighted in yellow on this aerial photo.

BNSF Railway has confirmed what has been a subject of speculation for decades – a second railroad track is coming to Edmonds.

According to BNSF spokesperson Lena Kent, the company plans to begin laying a second run of track sometime in 2023 next to the existing two-mile stretch of single track, which begins just north of Point Wells, stretches north around Point Edwards, skirts the western edge of the Edmonds Marsh, passes the Edmonds Marina, Waterfront Center and ferry terminal, and ends adjacent to Edmonds Street, where it joins the existing double track heading north toward Everett. This will eliminate one of only two remaining single-track segments between Seattle and Everett. (The other is in Mukilteo beginning at about the level of 76th Street Southwest and ending approximately one-half mile south of the lighthouse; BNSF confirms that “there is no date when this section might be double-tracked.”)

According to BNSF, the existing single track through downtown Edmonds is slated to be upgraded to double track in 2023. (Photo by Larry Vogel)

Kent went on to say that this will “improve efficiency of operations for Sound Transit, Amtrak and freight service” and that it “reflects our strong commitment to our customers and communities in the state of Washington.”

While this answers a question that has loomed for years, it raises a host of additional uncertainties. To name a few: How will the Edmonds train station and bus transit center be reconfigured; will there be loading platforms on both sides of the double track; how will passengers and others move between platforms without walking directly across the tracks; and what plans exist — if any — to mitigate effects on the marsh.

The double track section running south from Everett converges into a single track adjacent to Edmonds Street. (Photo by Larry Vogel)

BNSF has already notified the Swamp Creek and Western Railroad Association, which operates a model railroad in the Edmonds train station, that BNSF will not renew its lease. The association was told it must vacate the space by February so the area can be reconfigured for baggage handling as part of the double-tracking project.

As a privately held company, BNSF is not bound by public disclosure laws, and accordingly the railroad has not released any details on the project, including what it will look like and features it will include.

The Edmonds station passenger loading platform might be narrowed to make room for the new second track. (Photo by Larry Vogel)

Kent declined My Edmonds News’ request for drawings and plans, saying in an email that “unfortunately I don’t have these available.”

City of Edmonds Public Works and Utilities Director Phil Williams said these plans do exist, but so far the railway has been unwilling to share them. “We’ve been asking about it for years,” he added.

“Most recently when we were planning the Waterfront Connector project, we asked to see the plans, but BNSF told us they would not share them with us,” Williams said. “They did, however, say they would allow our design consultant to look at drawings, but stipulated that they would not let the plans out of their hands.”

In addition to the impact on the city of Edmonds both during and after construction, the project could potentially affect ferry system operations, Sounder commuter trains, Amtrak trains, and buses that use the new transit center adjacent to the Main Street at-grade railroad crossing.

While sufficient right-of-way exists north of Main Street to allow for a double track, it narrows significantly at the Main Street at-grade crossing. Adding a double track here will force significant reconfiguration of the railroad station, the bus transit center and/or Railroad Avenue. (Photo by Larry Vogel)

According to Community Transit spokesperson Luke Distelhorst, the transit agency was contacted “years ago” about the project and is generally aware of it, but has heard nothing recently.

Ferry system spokesperson Ian Sterling, however, confirmed that Washington State Ferries is aware of the plans and has been in contact with BNSF.

“BNSF has been in discussions with us over the years about this and we will continue to collaborate closely,” Sterling said in an email to My Edmonds News. “From a Ferries perspective, we need to maintain a minimum of two lanes for ingress and egress. What that exactly looks like is to be determined, but I can tell you that we did it before when Sound Transit/BNSF installed new track right at the terminal entrance.”

Likewise, Sound Transit confirms that it is aware of the project but has few details.

“We’ve been aware of this project for a while,” Sound Transit spokesperson John Gallagher said in an email. Regarding possible impacts to the Sounder commuter train, “there would be some, but it could be mitigated in a couple different ways such as a temporary platform or a bus bridge,” Gallagher said. “We’ll have a better sense of what the impact will be and how we can mitigate it once we have the final construction schedule.”

The current single track at the Edmonds train station looking north from the Dayton Street at-grade crossing. (Photo by Larry Vogel)

BNSF owns the railroad tracks and serves as the “host railroad” for both Amtrak and Sound Transit. These agencies have entered into contractual agreements with the railway, laying out the rights and responsibilities of each party, and under which they pay BNSF to run their trains on the its tracks. Because of the railway’s status as a private corporation, these contracts are not public documents, so details including the level of service BNSF must provide to ensure safe, timely and efficient passenger train operations are not available.

However, Amtrak publishes an annual report card comparing the level of service provided by the several host railways with which it contracts for services. While overall, BNSF receives an A grade, it earns an F for the Amtrak Cascades – which runs between Vancouver, B.C. and Eugene, Oregon along the present single-track section through Edmonds – where it reports only 67% of passengers arrive within 15 minutes of schedule.

An Amtrak train makes its way along the Edmonds waterfront. (File photo by Ken Sjodin)

Amtrak also notes that under federal law, Amtrak passenger trains must be given preference over freight trains on any rail line, but that host railroads routinely ignore this in favor of freight trains carrying “coal, garbage, crude oil, empty freight cars, or any other freight that the host chooses to  prioritize over Amtrak passengers, forcing Amtrak passengers to wait on a siding while a freight train…is prioritized first.”

The agency goes on to state that “unfortunately, only the Department of Justice can enforce this law, and it has brought only one enforcement action against a freight company in Amtrak’s history – and that was over 40 years ago! As a result, freight railroads suffer no significant consequences for prioritizing their freight over you, our passenger.”

Like Amtrak, Sound Transit also has a contract with BNSF under which it pays the railway to operate the Sounder commuter service. In December 2003 Sound Transit entered into a joint use agreement with BNSF, whereby it agreed to pay the railroad $258 million in voter-approved funds in exchange for operating the Sounder between Seattle and Everett on BNSF tracks “in perpetuity.” While the full contract is not a public document, some details have emerged. A key element of the joint-use agreement obligates BNSF to commit to several parameters aimed at providing on-time reliable service for commuters. According to a Sound Transit staff report, these agreements establish windows during which up to four commuter trains in each direction can operate, including hours of service, arrival and departure windows, and maximum time between trains.

It’s difficult to determine at this point whether BNSF’s decision to double track Edmonds is driven in part by contractual agreements with Amtrak and Sound Transit, or aimed at facilitating the railroad’s freight business.

Another looming question is just who controls the rights-of-way adjacent to the two at-grade crossings at Dayton and Main Streets in Edmonds.

“When we were planning the Sunset Avenue Walkway project, we looked through county records to find out the extent of the railroad’s right-of-way adjacent to Sunset,” Edmonds’ Phil Williams explained.  “We needed to know where that line was so we could plan accordingly and not encroach on it.”

Answering the question of whether the City of Edmonds or BNSF owns the at-grade crossings at Main and Dayton will determine how much influence the city might be able to have on the project. (Photo by Larry Vogel)

Williams added that as part of that research, the city discovered some records dating to the early 1900s suggesting that the City of Edmonds actually owns the crossings at Dayton and Main.

“If nothing has happened in the intervening years and this ownership still holds, it changes things,” he explained.  “If Edmonds still indeed owns these crossings, the railroad has been operating under an easement from us to run track over our right-of-way, not us having an easement from them to run a road over theirs. This would certainly give us some shot-calling power. I’m not a title expert, but I’ve got the documents and I can’t see where it’s changed. But I stand to be corrected if the railroad produces documentation to the contrary.”

According to Williams, this issue has been turned over to the Edmonds City Attorney to investigate and provide a definitive answer regarding ownership of these two crossings.

Bottom line: If Edmonds owns these crossings, it means that BNSF would need to either get approval from the city to do this project or find some way around it.

While much remains uncertain, BNSF’s confirmation that the project will move forward in 2023 at least answers the “when.” But until the railroad releases its plans, and the question of at-grade crossing ownership is clarified, the “what, why and where” will continue to loom.

— By Larry Vogel

18 Replies to “BNSF Railway confirms plans to double track Edmonds in 2023, but key questions remain”

  1. Great reporting! This has been an interesting read, Larry certainly asks all the right questions. Very informative, thank you Larry Vogel and My Edmonds News. We will all be looking for more on this “Double-Track” subject; really great photos too, they really made the story easy to follow.

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  2. Great article!

    Only once in my career have I seen a city own the ROW instead of the railroad (the RR got to the PNW first, remember). To this day, I’ve never seen the power dynamic turn as sharply as it did during that meeting when the city (city of Renton) explained the unusual situation to the RR.

    If it’s true that the City of Edmonds owns the Right of Way (again, nearly unprecedented) then that gives us a commanding place at the decision table. I suspect the railroad won’t know how to react and will need to be helped along with the new reality (most likely legally). We can fund a new below grade crossing by selling tickets to that meeting.

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    1. I worked for about 10 years both for Class 1 railroads and for about 30 shortline clients. I too rarely ran into privately owned right of way without an agreement in place that was either costly ro the railroad or the tenants who used the sidetracks etc. I am sure the City has some leverage for the negotiations, but i also think, in the end, the Railroad(s).always figure out a way to.win. It will be intwresting to see how this one plays out….

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  3. Two words – “Federal pre-emption”. BNSF has it; Edmonds does not. Unless BNSF wants to cooperate, it does not have to.

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  4. This is a huge thing. I was wondering when the BNSF would get a whiff. Family since G pa on BN to Friends and Company Associates at SF before the merge, etc. Knew many Supervisors and Train Masters in Chicago. I started worrying when we had the sad ending of own lives events…I knew how much RR hates a lawsuit. I just wondered.
    Now I see this. I read it all and the BNSF is the strongest in the country really since UP is all Southern…Thats what the computer said. I also thought they are gonna do something here. I have thought as things go along that next would be a big fence to protect the RR from any type of lawsuit. But I am sure this is a coincidence. I would be real nice to a major player like this. this is Berkshire Hathaway ville. Very interesting but maybe just a first stab at infrastructure we have been hoping for I believe. Good to know. They only or usually only hire attorneys from the Ivy League Schools in the East. Have you been in contact with Redding CA?

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  5. I am far more concerned about landslides in that area. Adding an additional track will increase the amount of train activity thus increasing the chance of a catastrophic accident where a passenger train or an oil train is pushed into the Sound.

    During our rainy season, hardly a month goes by without a slide. Adding additional track just invites disaster. Maybe some of you remember Oso?

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  6. The odd thing is, if you look at the old photos of our waterfront before about 1960, we had double tracking along our waterfront (plus a siding!) and the second track was removed for some reason. Hindsight is 20:20, but it seems strange the railroad created a bottleneck where one didn’t exist.

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  7. The federal infrastructure bill has funds for rail crossing safety – something championed by our very own Senator Cantwell. Assuming it passes the house and is signed into law, this seems like a fantastic opportunity for Edmonds to partner with BNSF and advocate for federal funding for a permanent below grade rail crossing. The stars *could* be aligning to solve what has been a major problem.

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  8. Much time and attention has been expended on the below grade rail crossing, which may or may not be practical from an engineering standpoint. The elephant in the room is the drainage of Willow Creek thru the Edmonds Marsh to the sound, which does not seem to be compatible with the below grade crossing. The free flow of salmon streams and the Edmond Marsh are both sacred, as we all know.
    It seems to me, until we solve this problem, any more discussion of the below grade crossing is a waste of breath.

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  9. Kevin S above makes an excellent point about the possibility of Federal Money to help with eliminating the dangers of an at grade crossing. Today we have 2 crossings. 50 trains a day and growing. Dayton serves a wide range of activities mostly on Port of Edmonds property. Main serves the massive number of vehicles using WSF. This run is one of the fasting growing crossings and the WSF plan is to add a 3rd boat in within the next 10 years.

    Do the math and you will see more and more times when trains, cars, and people will be using the same space, the at grade crossings. The Connector was for “emergency access”. Given the increased “conflict” time we will have to decide if we want to only consider “emergency access” or consider a bolder solution for primary access. The data probably shows WSF generates the most vehicle traffic and that will only increase with the 3 boat model.

    It may well be time to revisit the “multimodal transportation” model first approved by council in 1994. By revisiting the plan with all of today’s water front needs and plans, it may well become the best, most cost effective, and safest solution.

    Kevin is correct that some sort of crossing that is not at grade may be the best. He points out the Feds and infrastructure moneys and a new funding may also be available given the direction of congress to reestablish “earmarks”.

    It may be more productive if we sort out the ideas, the data, and the other moving parts of what changes will occur with our WF area before we start tossing out just a bunch of opinions the may not be helpful in sorting out these complicated but needed discussions. Most answers will requires some compromises and hopefully we can listen to all options and data and work collectively on solutions.

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  10. Wouldn’t a below grade crossing of any sort in that whole area be pretty much below sea level? Isn’t our sea level predicted to be rising several inches in the next few decades, if not years? How does that pencil out as a viable solution to anything on the Waterfront that already floods pretty routinely when the monsoons come? Was it really smart to rebuild New Orleans on site after Katrina; and now Ida?

    Maybe it’s just time for our City to tell the railroad and the ferry system to get together and figure it out and we will react as necessary to keep what viable access we have. We can always do a big overpass at Dayton to keep access to the port, the WFC, and other business’ down there if we have to. In fact, it looks to me like that is probably the only viable solution in the long run, when you look at the needs we really don’t have much control over. It’s going to get interesting.

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  11. A below grade solution would be costly to build (think watertight concrete boat), expensive to maintain (leaks/pumps/climate change), and create security/safety issues (dark tunnel). If built, this solution would represent a total lack of cooperation and imagination between the City, WSDOT, and the RR. I don’t want to drag up the connector debate, but it sure would be nice to have a study that evaluated all these options (along with preliminary costs, constructability issues, and potential environmental impacts). Bonus if it someone else picked up the tab.

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  12. Something to remember about two tracks in Edmonds. There is a single track tunnel under Everett, about 1 1/2 miles of single track. No more trains can come through Edmonds than can pass through the Everett tunnel, except for an occasional train that starts or ends in the yard on the Everett waterfront. The second track through Edmonds eliminates the need for trains to sit at either end of the single track waiting for a train coming the other way. Folks living along Sunset Ave. should find that to be a good thing.

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  13. The rarest form of true wisdom is knowing when it is just best to do nothing. Edmonds leaders do not possess that kind of wisdom as far as I have seen over the years. When it came to the Connector we decided to do nothing because of the people’s wisdom and so far “nothing” has worked out pretty well as far as I can tell. If we had done nothing about saving trees, lots of just sub 24″ diameter trees would still be kicking out oxygen for us to breath.

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