Friday, January 8, 2010

Railroads of Grant County 1999-2009

The final decade of railroad history in Grant County’s first 100 years saw some significant changes. The various shortlines were content to maintain their small holdings of branches, while those railroads that had given up those branchlines were still chasing further growth.

In 1999, Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF), which operated Grant County’s only cross-country rail line, and the Canadian National Railway announced their intention to merge and form a new corporation entitled the North American Railways, to be headquartered in Montreal, Canada. The United States' Surface Transportation Board (STB), successor to the old Interstate Commerce Commission, placed a 15-month moratorium on all rail mergers, which thus ended this atttempt. This moratorium was partially based on the effects of this merger on the other major rail lines in North America. No one really wanted to go through the headache of combining large systems, in light of the mess created by the breakup of the Northeastern US-based Conrail by competitors Norfolk Southern and CSX earlier in the year.

The Palouse River & Coulee City (PCC), owned by Watco, a holding company of many shortlines across the country, operated the Central Washington (CW) branch from Cheney to Coulee City and another line running from Marshall to Pullman; Watco was making noises about the lack of financial success in running these lines. Finally, in November 2004, Washington State agreed to buy the line from Marshall to Pullman for $6.5 million dollars, but chose not to purchase the 108-mile CW branch.

Preparations to purchase the branch were finalized in early September 2005, but on September 13, Watco withdrew its offer to sell the CW line to the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT). Watco said it wanted to abandon the line and sell the rails, ties and other materials for scrap value because it could not meet its service commitments in a profitable way. WSDOT had planned to forgive the balance ($442,468) of an existing rehabilitation loan to Watco as partial payment for purchasing the branch, and the state legislature had allocated $1.2 million for the line. Instead, Watco closed the line down with an embargo in November 2005.

BNSF jumped into the fray by issuing a written offer to Watco on the following March 2. It offered to provide haulage on the CW branch for a period of up to five years. BNSF said the offer would remain on the table for 45 days while the two companies worked out a formal agreement. The offer called for haulage trains of no more than 78 car units originating on the PCC between Cheney and Coulee City, with rates of $110 per loaded car. BNSF would provide transportation up to a maximum of 2,025 loaded cars per year; any more than that would be moved at BNSF’s discretion.

In the letter to Watco, BNSF also offered to work with PCC and its customers to develop a shuttle facility at Coulee City. “We believe such a facility may reduce total transportation and handling costs and best serve the shippers and producers in the Coulee City-Almira area for the long term,” the letter said.

The embargo came as a surprise to a shipper on the line, who ordered cars to load, only to find they could not be delivered. The state of Washington got involved and filed a complaint with the STB June 26, 2006, regarding the legality of the embargo. Typically, an embargo is used when a line is rendered unusable due to severe circumstances, such as flooding, not as Watco had done due to lack of profitability, deferred maintenance, and competition. Within three days of the STB ruling on the State’s complaint, Watco cancelled the embargo on July 14, but there was an added catch. Watco added a $472 surcharge per car in addition to its regular shipping rate.

On February 8, 2007, Governor Gregoire and Watco signed a binding memorandum for the State to purchase the entire CW branch. It included provisions for reimbursing Watco some of its operating costs in return for its agreement to operate the CW from June 1, 2006, through May 31, 2007, without substantial shipper surcharges. The State officially purchased the branch on May 11; PCC ended operations on May 31.

WSDOT chose US Rail Partners to operate the CW Branch, who formed the Eastern Washington Gateway (EWG) as the company to actually run the trains. The EWG started operations on June 1, 2007.

In the midst of the fray, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe took steps to move away from its heritage. On January 24, 2005, it chose to formally call itself “BNSF Railway,” using unreferenced letters rather than the initials which represented the full names of its predecessor companies.

Growth on branch line railroads in Grant County is still tied to agriculture, just as it was back in 1909. As long as farmers can make money growing crops, the shortlines will prosper. Mainline railroads still take those loads from shortlines and send them to all points, but their main traffic is now international trade and coal. They are not dependent on those farmers.

One hundred years ago, the towns of what became Grant County already had established rail service, and the people of that time relied on it. Today, towns do not count on rail service, and some see it as a nuisance. It is unlikely that something like Grand Coulee Dam, with a dedicated new railroad to support the construction, could be built today.

As the county moves into its eleventh decade, railroad history will continue to be made. The Port of Moses Lake continues with its project to rehabilitate the former Milwaukee Road branch to the airport, with plans to abandon the tracks through the downtown area, and to potentially rebuild part of the former Northern Pacific/Burlington Northern branch from Wheeler to serve the airport. Another situation to watch is the purchase of BNSF by investor Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway. This move will make BNSF a private company again, which hearkens back to the days of James J. Hill, builder of the Great Northern Railway across the Northern Tier states. A final thing to look for would be the resurrection of the Milwaukee Road across Eastern Washington. Rumors have abounded. Legislation has kept the line available to any railroad who might want to rebuild.

Will it happen? Only the next century will tell.

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