Guest Commentaries

Guest commentary: Can high-speed train to Canada give new life to old route?

Reinvigorating rail without reinventing the wheel
July 13, 2022 at 4:45 a.m.

By Paul Kenna

The Letter to the Editor by Donald Case (CDN May 4) on the “Bullet Train Study” (CDN April 20) brings up some very valid points. The “study” referred to, printed in The Daily Herald of Everett, rightfully suggests that improving existing rail lines for increasing passenger train speeds would be far cheaper than building all-new lines. Efforts at creating European or Japanese-type “bullet trains” in this country have run into costly “boondoggle junctions.”

Building infrastructure to provide train service from Seattle to Vancouver, British Columbia, on separate rights-of-way and capable of 250 mph may well run into the same obstructions. More frequent train service, with running speeds of at least 110 mph, appears a more realistic goal. 

Much of the existing BNSF Railway route between Everett and the Canadian border is through rural areas with minimal curvature. Ruling grades (the maximum grade that a train would encounter, in a specific segment of track) are rarely more than 1%. Upgrading from single to double trackage and installing overhead catenary wire for electrified passenger trains, once completed, could benefit the movement of both passenger and freight trains.

As Mr. Case points out in his letter, there would be problems in upgrading the track along the Chuckanut shoreline. Two that stand out are curvature and mudslides. As such, a separate right-of-way for passenger trains on the stretch from north of Burlington to Fairhaven (south Bellingham) might be a requirement. Interestingly, the history of railroad development in this area may provide a solution.

The RR past as possible prologue

In 1890, the city of Fairhaven was growing exponentially, led by three pioneer developers, Charles X. Larrabee, James Wardner and Nelson Bennett. Railroad fever was largely responsible. Bennett, a railroad construction contractor, was extending his Fairhaven & Southern Railroad (F&S) both north and south. To the north, the F&S linked up with the New Westminster & Southern at Blaine on Valentine’s Day, 1891.

Eight months later, to the south, the F&S tracks met with those of the northward-building Seattle & Montana. Building from Seattle since May 1890, both lines had come into the fold of “Empire Builder” James J. Hill, whose Great Northern Railway was rapidly breaching the Montana Rockies, with the goal of reaching Puget Sound — a goal that led to hopes that the Great Northern would make Fairhaven its western terminus. Now with control of a rail line direct from Seattle to the outskirts of Vancouver, B.C., Hill was in a position to play the Sound's port cities against each other, which he did to his advantage. Fairhaven lost out to Everett as the favored terminus, but now it had its own connections in western Washington and southern British Columbia. 

The line Nelson Bennett had laid out in 1890 entered Fairhaven from the south by way of Samish Pass, a hilly route that Hill disliked due to steep grades that were an impediment to the efficient operation of heavy freight trains. That route was later followed in the 1930s by the Pacific Highway. And in the 1960s by Interstate 5. 

In 1900, Hill decreed that his Great Northern Railway would enter Fairhaven on a new water-level route north of Burlington. Blasting through sandstone and at the foot of slide-prone slopes, following the winding shore of Chuckanut Bay required curves of between 4 and 7 degrees, along with four tunnels. But the grade was kept under 1%, preferable for the passage of heavy freight trains than was the hill-climbing railroad up and over Samish Pass. Taking over two years to complete, the first train to pass along the shore entered Fairhaven from the south on Sunday, Feb. 15, 1903. The old line with its steep grade over Samish fell into disuse, truncated as a little-used branch line from north of Burlington to Alger.

A passenger-only alternate route?

The long-disused rail route could be resurrected as a passenger-only link on an otherwise rebuilt existing line between Everett and Vancouver, B.C. Electrified passenger trains would veer off the mainline at railroad milepost 74 north of Burlington to rejoin the existing line north of Fairhaven. The old alignment had few curves and the grade over Samish Pass would not be a hindrance for passenger trains. Much of the old grade is still intact, cut into the hillside above the Pacific Highway north of Alger. Segments of the northbound downgrade into Fairhaven are discernable in places. 

Mr. Case's Letter to the Editor states, “Yes, there are potential inland detours, but where are the discussions of those routes, and their particular challenges?” Starting such discussions and having them reach the level to where changes can go beyond the dream stage may be more of a challenge than the engineering involved. Then, too, excitement must be generated. Raising the maximum speed limit to 110 mph may not be enough. Upgrading for speeds of up to 160 mph is not an engineering impossibility. Permanent speed restrictions would need to be mitigated through such improvements as elimination of grade crossings and eliminating track bottlenecks such as Bellingham, with its 20 mph permanent speed restriction.

Participation of BNSF Railway in such discussions would be necessary, and that may not be beyond reach. The normally-reticent railroad company has stated its intention of working with environmental consulting firms, the Tulalip Tribes and the federal Environmental Protection Agency to restore critical salmon habitat on the many miles where its tracks skirt the shoreline. An improvement since the days of Jim Hill is that railroads are no longer run as untouchable autocracies. 

History buff Paul Kenna, a Bellingham-area resident since 1997, worked for a decade for BNSF Railway in the Bellingham Subdivision from Everett to the Canadian border and has extensive experience in other rail line preservation and re-use. 

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