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Fallen Flags the Demise of the American Railroads

I love trains both as a hobby and the real thing. Even as hobbyist we care about the heart of our transportation system ? the railroads.In this particular discussion I would like to provide you with a condition that affects the economic stability of the Pacific Northwest and perhaps the Nation.

Railroads have been a significant part of the Seattle/Tacoma metropolitan region for over a century. So has the ability of the ships of the sea bringing us goods to be shipped by the railroads across our vast land. However, a man made disaster has begun do to bad management and the lack of foresight.The Seattle/Tacoma combined ports are designated as the ninth largest in the World and the third largest in the United States. This is a feather in the cap of those who have helped build such an industry.

There is a catch to this progress. The railroads can't get the goods out of Seattle/Tacoma. It is going to get worse because the Seattle Port Authority has bought three super cranes that have the capability to reach out over a ship that is 100 meters wide. These ships are in design in Korea.

They can hold an immense load of containers that range in the thousands.To give you an idea of how fast a container can be loaded onto the ship and the same time off the ship is about a minute and a half each direction. Very skilled Long Shore men do this 24/7. The cost of a ship in port can range from $1500.00 and up per hour. So the loading and unloading has to be fast but so does the ability of the railroads to handle these containers.

At the present time the railroads can't mange the requirement to meet the shipping goals. This is without the super ships.To give an example of how bad the situation is was the loss of the Nissan contract to this West Coast port for all of their cars and trucks.

They moved to Long Beach, California. This was costly for Seattle and for Nissan. The city lost major revenue and Nissan lost a day at sea travel. It is closer to Seattle from Asia by one day than to the ports to the South.

It cost approximately $43,000 a day at sea.With this in mind we shall look at the four railroads that once existed in this region. Prior to some of the major mergers in the railroad industry the railroads in this area consisted of the Great Northern, Northern Pacific, Union Pacific and the Milwaukee Road.

With the advent of specialized flat cars the railroads could now carry two containers one on top of the other with a maximum of four containers per car. Unfortunately only two of these railroads could carry the double stacks as they are called. With the merger of the Great Northern/Northern Pacific and CB&Q into the Burlington Northern and eventual the Santa Fe to become the Burlington Northern Santa Fe plus the demise of the Milwaukee Road we had only two rail passes across the Cascades. The Union Pacific route is south to Portland and east through the Columbia River Gorge.Two get the double stacks through the mountains you have to have tunnels that can stand the height of the double stack freight cars.

At present only one tunnel can do that. That is through the North Cascade Tunnel of the BNSF through Stevens Pass. Problem, the tunnel is about 7.8 miles long. It originally had electrified engines to pull the freight and passenger trains though the tunnel. Now they use diesel engines which create poisons gas in the tunnel.

Because of this the railroad was required to build huge fans to suck the gasses out before another train could enter the tunnel. This creates a delay of 20 to 30 minutes to accomplish. Basically you loose a half a day of traveling time.Second the Northern Pacific route through the Cascades was shut down for economic reasons. More recently the line has been reopened because of traffic problems but it has a problem.

The Stamped Pass tunnel is to low to handle double stacks. The railroad is thinking about either re-drilling the tunnel or building a new tunnel adjacent to the old one because of other problems with the present tunnel.The third and worst problem of all for the railroad situation was allowing the Milwaukee Road to fall into bankruptcy by both bad management and a bunch of arrogant railroads. This railroad is vital to help get the products in and out of the two port areas.

It has the lowest ruling grade of the other two tracks of 1%. The other two tracks ruling grade is in excess of 2%. The Milwaukee Cascade tunnel was designed for electrification and had to have extra clearance in the tunnel to allow for the workman to maintain the system. This would allow for double stacks with plenty of clearance.The Union Pacific halls double stacks all the time but with one draw back. The track goes some 180 miles to the south before heading east.

This total inadequacy has become a head ache that may shut down a great deal of our commerce and unfortunately no body is doing anything about. They just talk about it. The cost to re-track the Milwaukee Road to Spokane, Washington will be peanuts compared to the cost of getting a poorly managed port(s) and railroad right aways fixed when the super cargo ships arrive on the seen.


Joy Ball has been involved in the restoration and maintenance of a variety of Brass Model Locomotives. Through her years of expertise, Mrs. Ball has perfected the art of train restoration often spending countless hours preserving vintage Brass Locomotive to the running condition of even the newest Brass Model Replicas. It should be noted that the above article was written by Joy's husband Michael Ball. Receive her free newsletter at http://www.brasslocomotiveworks.


By: Michael W.P. Ball


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