Wash. state's short lines need $600 million in repairs

Published: August 6, 2015

washington_stateMore than half of Washington’s short line rail miles aren’t up to modern standards, a recent study found.

The evaluation was done by the Washington State Department of Transportation and the Washington State University Freight Policy Transportation Institute at the request of the Legislature. The final result, the Washington State Short Line Rail Inventory and Needs Assessment, was released in late June.

Many of the state’s 29 short line railroads are local and serve farmers in agricultural and timber-growing communities by hauling their products to larger railroads. The study found that more than 55 percent (740) miles of all short line track miles within the state are not able to efficiently handle the 286,000-pound rail cars used in modern freight transport. That means trains have to go slower on the lines, cause more wear and cost more to operate.

Capacity for heavier rail cars is important because products often move from short line rails to larger rail systems to reach national and global markets. Because they’ve been neglected for many years, bringing the lines up to modern standards could cost more than $600 million, the study determined.

The study also highlighted the benefits of short line railroads. In addition to getting goods to market, the rail lines help cut down on roadway congestion and highway wear and tear. As an example of savings from short line railroads, the study found that the Tacoma Rail alone generates public benefits in excess of $11 million annually in addition to cost savings to businesses and shippers. Public benefits include increased safety due to reduced truck trips in addition to less wear and tear on roads.

Study findings can be used by lawmakers and others to plan for future rail investments as well as exploring funding sources. Recently, the Washington Legislature passed, and Gov. Jay Inslee signed, a new revenue package which included over $107 million for statewide freight rail track improvements. The funding includes $47 million for the state-owned short line rail system and $31 million for the Freight Rail Assistance Program, which supports economic development and rail preservation initiatives.