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.”)
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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