Tuesday, November 21, 2017

2006 Discussion About The CW and P&L Branches

Not sure who to credit for this, as I just came across it all these years later. If you know, drop me a line and I'll update this to credit the author.

With all the discussion about CW and P&L branches lately, and with a public hearing looming Friday I thought a little history of Watco was in order. After being little more than an industrial switching company in the northwest for many years (Wallula, WA and East Helena, MT) Watco enters the northwest shortline picture big time on Nov. 20, 1992 with the purchase of several Union Pacific branch lines in Eastern Washington and Northern Idaho. These lines include Hooper Jct. WA to Winona to Thornton, WA, Winona to Colfax, Pullman, WA. and Moscow Idaho. And the Purchase/Lease of Wallula-Walla Walla-Dayton-Walair, WA lines and the Walla Walla to Weston, OR. line. Soon after arriving on the scene, the branch to Weston gets closed, and the branch to Dayton gets sold off to local county governments so that goverment funded track rehab. can take place. Later, the State of Oregon comes up with money to rehab and reopen the Weston Branch. Local governments in conjunction with Washington State Department of Transportation start the state grain train program, with Watco's carshop in the Port of Pasco getting the contract to do the work on the well used cars purchased by the state. Initially the state cars are only used from the Walla Walla area branches to Portland, later Watco develops a grain shuttle train to a river port elevator near Wallula off the UP main line. Watco brings in a small group of its own cars for use on the grain shuttle, and use of grain shuttle and state cars spreads to the lines out of Hooper. LINES OUT OF HOOPER--Watco starts up with some good press and even starts a excursion train for one summer (in partnership with a Portland tour operator), but eventually Watco begins to complain about the track conditions (track long neglected by UP) and they begin to have derailments. Watco gets the Port of Whitman County to purchase track maintaince machines in exchange for the "title" to its two Hooper area GP-35's (792, 799 ex-UP exx-WP). Later Watco is able to secure some track repair funds from the WSDOT and the Port of Whitman. Watco does construct a new siding near Hooper to service a gravel pit there and shuttle rock to Pullman for a local contractor. Watco brings in a small group of ex-NW hopper cars for the service---but cars leak badly and service eventually fails. Watco begins to worry about a "headcut" causing a bridge to fail near Pampa, WA and claims to have no money to fix the problem. After a couple of years of exchanges with the Port of Whitman County, the Port of Whitman County buys the bridge in order to gain funds to fix the problem--although there is no evidence anything has been done to stablize the situation. P&L BRANCH, CW BRANCH.--In the late Spring of 1996, Watco forms another railroad to buy the BNSF lines between Marshall, WA and Moscow, ID, (P&L BRANCH) the abandoned but in place Moscow to Arrow, Jct line, the Palouse, WA to Bovill, ID branch (ex-WI&M RY) and the Cheney to Coulee City, WA (CW Branch). Watco starts the operation with little fanfare and slips faded Xerox letters through the doors of customers that provide shippers with incorrect phone numbers for contacting the railroad. Power and employees are in short supply and service suffers. (Watco purchases additional motive power in the form of ex-CR GP-35's that are in poor condition and several have major problems throwing oil out the exhaust--units are parked in Cheney next to the ADM flour mill and a sizable portion of the white mill is turned black by the oil from the units exhause angering ADM to no end. Watco relocates the units to another location that results in the units leaking into a stream. A group of ex-CSX GP-30's arrive later in better shape.) With the Watco purchase of the P&L Branch shippers become hopeful of the reopening of the Moscow to Arrow JCT line in hopes of starting grain shuttle service to the ports in Lewiston,ID. Spring floods prior to the 1996 purchase damage the Moscow to Arrow line and Watco claims it too costly to reopen, later newspapers report that the line had already been sold by Watco to A&K Railroad materials to finance purchase of the BNSF lines. A&K quickly scraps the line for its heavy rail and refused to entertain any offers from others to buy it. Also damaged in the '96 flood was the trackage between Deary and Bovill, ID. (Watco quickly closes the line between Harvard and Deary after a derailment on it's second trip up there.) Another customer celebrates the sale of the BNSF lines to Watco---Bennett Lumber Company near Harvard, ID announces its eager to see the shortline as it wants to ship some of its lumber out by way of UP, resulting in the doubling of its shipments, Bennett's are disappointed to learn that the BNSF sale agreement will still block their access to UP. A clay mine is proposed near Bovill, but Watco allows A&K to scrap the line between Harvard and Bovill (in order to pay off a loan made to Watco by A&K), but tells the owners of the proposes clay mine that they would gladly rebuild the line should the mine get built. Watco and BNSF succeed in gaining traffic hauling farm machines to Colfax, but just as the machines arrive, Watco tears out the unloading ramp in Colfax and customer has to stack blocks to unload the machines, later Watco tells the customer to unload the machines in Palouse and truck them to Colfax, but the road between Palouse and Colfax is restricted both due to weight and clearances and customer opts to unload in Spokane. Just after the year 2000, Washington State University begins to plan to replace it's coal fired power plant in Pullman with a natural gas powered on. The WSDOT and area shippers become concerned that the loss of coal traffic (off the UP side of the operation) will tip the scales enough to result in the loss of rail service to the whole area and talks begin with Watco to have the WSDOT buy it's palouse area operations known by now as the Palouse River and Coulee City Railroad (Watco had merged its operations into on common company by then) Walla Walla area lines would not be covered by the sale. Sale takes place in 2004 and Watco gets an automatic 15 year RENT FREE lease on the lines. No other rail operators are permitted to bid for the operation. Coal traffic stops in 2005. Since 2000, Watco has removed all elevator and team tracks from service on its line between Colfax and Pullman. A salvage company eyes Albion as a reload location for scrap salvaged from the nearby Whitman County Landfill---weeks later Watco crews begin lifting sidings in Albion. Watco get $7.8 million for its Palouse River and Coulee City lines and as part of the deal---for unknown reasons--the WSDOT only wants a 20 foot right-of-way through the City of Pullman and Watco is allowed to sell the land yeilding another $1.5 million. WSDOT does not buy any of the railroad located in Idaho, and in Moscow during the summer of 2005 Watco sells off and scraps 99% of the ex-BNSF trackage in town and some UP trackage to allow University of Idaho to expand it's campus downtown. Some UP trackage is also removed turning Moscow into a switching nightmare with no runaround trackage. At least two shippers lose service in the move (contrary to STB filing by Watco)---Latah County Grain Growers and Columbia Tractor lose service. In 2005, WSDOT awards a feed mill located on the CW Branch a grant to build a large car unloading facility and the company expects to unload 26 car units of inbound feed, also in 2005, BNSF donates it's Geiger Spur to Spokane County and Spokane County begins the public hearings needed to connect the spur to Watco's CW branch between Medical Lake and Cheney in order to eliminate the portion of the spur passing through Fairchild AFB. In November of 2005, Watco imposes a $250 per car surcharge on all cars moving on its former BNSF lines. Watco claims the surcharge is needed to cover revenue lost by traffic being siphoned off by a grain train facility built by CO-AG near Ritzville. All remaining customers stop shipping on the CW Branch and Watco closes down the line in December 2005. But shippers on the P&L Branch tolerate the $250 surcharge and traffic into Moscow actually grows with inbound Lentil shipments. Bennett Lumber company near Harvard announces in too will increase traffic as well from 275 to 350 cars per year. Early January 2006 Watco raises surcharge to $870 per car, and remaining customers immediatly stop shipping. Watco employees are told that the P&L Branch will be shut down completely by May 2006 and employees will be terminated or relocated. Watco has imposed no surcharges on its former UP trackage in spite of the trackage being in much worse condition and prone to derailments. UP has also raised its grain rates so there has been a sharp decline in traffic in 2005, (as well as the impact of the Ritzville CO-AG elevator). Sources for this long winded summary. WATCO, WHITMAN COUNTY GAZETTE, WHITMAN COUNTY PUBLIC RECORDS, LEWISTON TRIBUNE, WALLA WALLA UNION BULLETIN, WSDOT, SPOKESMAN REVIEW, TRAFFIC WORLD, THE SHORT LINE, PUBLIC RECORDS--SURFACE TRANSPORTATION BOARD, JOURNAL OF COMMERCE, CAPITAL PRESS, DAYTON CHRONICLE, TRI-CITIES HERALD, LATAH COUNTY PUBLIC RECORDS, BENNETT AND ASSOCIATES--REAL ESTATE, CASE/IH, thanks to my Uncle Ben in Colfax, and my brother Joe in Walla Walla for helping out sending me info. when I'm not able to be there (Pasco)myself.

You'll note that when I got ripped apart a couple of weeks ago for making the same (undocumented) claims, the guys didn't use their names. HERE IT IS WITH SOURCES. Good job, Ted.

I wrote the following this morning, but was waiting until later to post. I guess I'll paste it in now. It's not an anti-WATCO piece since I don't have to do that one again.

The previous CW thread is starting to get too far down the page and I’m too lazy to scroll down, so I’ll start another one here.

As far as I know, WATCO is still running its own grain shuttle down to Wallula using the UP Hooper connection out of the Colfax-based operation. If they are serious about keeping the business that they have or have lost (as long as we are discussing pipedream new lines to bypass the brutal BNSF), there’s another option that might be open to WSDOT: Remove the 10 miles of very good track between Marshall and Spangle and re-connect Thornton (current end of the branch and grain shuttle operation) with Oakesdale (site of some of the north end’s most stable shippers) using the abandoned UP roadbed. That section was severed in about 1990 and is only 7 miles long. I’d then tear out Oakesdale-Palouse (I’m not aware of any current shippers in that section). I’m making the assumption that the big elevator at Fallon probably trucks its grain down to Lewiston these days—they were the only shipper between Palouse and Pullman. How many “active” shippers are there anymore at Palouse proper? Is Bennett on the W.I.M. the ONLY active shipper on the south end? Remember that the viability of the P&L line had a lot to do with the amount of traffic off of the St. Maries River’s south connection at Bovill and that that traffic was cut off by the flood damage to the east end of the W.I.M. At the time, the UP was looking at their Plummer line (the STMA north connection) and seeing the end of traffic out of Wallace and 2 trains a week from STMA/Plummer of about 20 cars each. They are now making 3 trips a week averaging a good 30 cars each. Many of these are now interchanged to the BNSF at Spokane. The P&L became a long, dead-end branch—which is why they spun it off.

On the CW line, the problem is that its location makes it the “read-headed stepchild”. The current line could be replaced with a 15-mile relay between Coulee City and the ex-GN mainline at Adrian—which could let the 40 miles between Almira and Davenport (or 50+ if you extend the removal to Reardan come out). The problem is that the BNSF doesn’t want to lug loaded grain trains WB over Stevens Pass, so the cars have to get hauled back towards Spokane anyway, but it does make sense to remove 35 miles of un-needed total trackage. If the BNSF doesn’t want to take the cars down into Spokane and back up to Cheney, put in a connection at the Deep Creek flyover and have the trains use that part of the CW line to Cheney. The first 5 miles of the CW line out to Five Lakes is going to remain in place anyway (even if the entire rest of the line is abandoned) once it becomes the new connection for the Geiger Spur. Fact: There is an on-hold plan to build a shuttle loop on the BNSF mainline somewhere south of Coulee City, so that issue will be solved anyway unless WSDOT decides to spare the highway by considering the 15-mile RR rebuild. I have first-hand knowledge of other long-since removed connections that WSDOT is considering funding, so none of this is outside of possible.

Traffic on the CW Branch dried up after Watco imposed a $250 per car surcharge on Nov. 17. Line is now closed due to lack of traffic, and a fan in Cheney told me that the crossing signals on the line have been taken out of service. Some traffic remains on the P&L Branch, but "due to the decline in business" Watco is upping the surcharge to $870 per car on Jan. 6. Most customers have cancelled their cars on order for after that date. Moscow/Pullman Daily News ran a story on the surcharges on 12/23/05 and how Bennett Lumber company is really mad and is going to lawmakers claiming Watco is trying to kill off the railroad. Watco claims that it has to raise rates to cover losses caused by raising rates. Go figure. (If an item doesn't sell at a retail store they discount it or run a sale. Watco's solution would be to raise prices till it sells given the logic they told the newspaper.) Sadly, I agree with Bennett Lumber, they are trying to kill the lines off. I would think Watco would want to sell the CW Branch to the state and have the state find a different operator rather than go to the expense of a possibly messy abandonment process.

I think that everybody would like to see the CBRW get everything that it can. That Moses Lake-Quincy plan is interesting but confusing--bewildering, I guess.

WSDOT is somewhat serious about "their" railroads. There is some investment interest in maintaining the Coulee City line by the Feds also due to that line being the only close RR access to Grand Coulee Dam when they need a turbine brought in. I have done track inspections and rehab reports for Chelan County P.U.D. on both of their dams (Rock Island and Rocky Reach) within the past few years. Rocky Reach's spur was fixed in 2002 and Rock Island is scheduled for 2006. In both cases, the spurs were unused for many years and in need of expensive rehabilitation to bring turbines in. Grand Coulee had a couple delivered a few years ago and will need more. They get offloaded at Wilbur and trucked the 20 miles to the dam. The State is also (financially) assisting in the construction of a new spur track for a growing fertilizer (and planning on feed grain) operation at Creston. The problem is that WATCO markets traffic for the line (or at least, they are SUPPOSED to).

The main problem on the Coulee City side is that, except for the first 10 miles or so, the rail is old 85# jointed stuff from the 50s.

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