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  • Stampede Pass Revival

    On July 31, 1998, looking down the hill on the west slope of the pass - about a mile from the west portal of the Stampede Tunnel there is little evidence of work on the track.

    On July 20, 1998, workers using wedges align the ends of two sec tions of rail, preparing the next weld. 

     The west portal of the Stampede Tunnel is all but obscured by two excavators tearing away old concrete work that once supported snowsheds.

    Pacific RailNews - October 1996 - Page 20 Pacific RailNews - October 1996 - Page 21

    Text and Photography by Ernest H. Robl

    The reawakening of Burlington Northern Santa Fe's Stampede Pass rail crossing

    Deep in the backwoods of Washington State's Cascade Mountains, tenuous signs heralded the reawakening of Burlington Northern Santa Fe's Stampede Pass rail crossing.

    Work began in spring 1996 to give BNSF sufficient east-west capacity through Washington State to the busy ports of Puget Sound. The railroad's other two routes - the former Great Northern line over Stevens Pass and the Spokane, Portland & Seattle line along the Columbia River - are nearly at capacity. Both lines are singletrack, and costs for increasing capacity are prohibitive. Further restricting BNSF operations and limiting growth is the 7.8-mile Cascade tunnel on Stevens Pass. It is presently limited to one train per hour to allow asphyxiating diesel exhaust to clear, causing a bottleneck for dispatchers.

    Weeds grew between the tracks on the former Northern Pacific Stampede Pass crossing, mothballed a decade ago when Burlington Northern thought its other Washington State lines could easily handle the traffic. The mighty, but rusted, steel trestle over the Green River Gorge stood silent. Armless semaphores still perched atop signal bridges. The wooden ties, repeatedly freezing and thawing, during many harsh winters, were in very bad shape.

      With the mold clamped in place, the weld is first heated with a welder's torch; then, a thermite charge sends out sparks and flames as the two sections of rail are welded.
    Pacific RailNews - October 1996 - Page 22


    Moments after an elk crossed the tracks near Cabin Creek, a rail train comes creeping up the 2.2 percent grade at less than one mile per hour, laying out welded rail behind.

    Pacific RailNews - October 1996 - Page 23

    By the time you read this, the initial phase of the work, which includes enlarging and refurbishing two mile-long summit tunnel, should be complete. It had better be, because by late fall, snow is a constant visitor on Stampede Pass. Not to be trifled with, the snowpack averages more than 300 inches per year.

    WHEN I VISITED THE PASS in late July and early August, I found fresh ballast in several places. New welded rail had been dropped at a few locations, the beginnings of new sidings. Here and there an air com pressor or small generator sat unattended and silent at trackside. At other locations, concrete foundations for signals remaining from the NP-era had been marked for demolition and removal.

    The rails weren't shiny, but they weren't completely rusted. Rails don't deteriorate from lack of traffic or maintenance like roadbed. In fact, sections of welded rail from Stampede's previous life had held up quite well.

    At Auburn, the western junction of the line with BNSF's north-south main along Washington State's coast, the tracks through town still looked more like a little-used industrial spur (the role they had played during the past decade) than a once (and future) mainline.

    My first impression of the dormant tracks west of Cle Elum was that not much was happening yet, but that something might - at any moment.

    A closer look at other locations told a different story.

    Early in the morning, down on the east side of the pass in Easton, just off Interstate 90, the siding was full of track machines. (Soon this siding too would be upgraded to handle long trains.) The parking area next to a newly-placed modular office building looked like a convention of hirail pickup trucks.

    At the mouth of Stampede Tunnel, ravenous machines were already tearing away at decaying concrete as quickly as a lone heavy-duty dump truck could haul it away. (Why a lone dump truck? On the narrow access road, there wasn't room for two trucks to pass.)

    Near Cabin Creek, a tractor-trailer rig with yet another heavy excavator went charging up a steep gravel forest road that many an automobile would be hesitant to try.

    Back at Easton, the drivers of all those hirail pick ups had received their work orders for the day and fanned out along dozen of miles of track. A ballast plow headed east towards the hamlet and siding of Bullfrog. A welding team began tacking newly installed continuous rail just west of Easton. The next day, those newly welded joints were already put to good use.

    As I waited along one of the curves near Cabin Creek (milepost 41.1) a few miles west of Easton, I watched an elk saunter across the tracks. Then, minutes later, I heard the distinct sound in the distance-diesels grinding their way up the relentless 2.2 percent grade. A pair of Geeps equipped with low-speed control came inching around the bend-on the point of a rail train stringing more new heavy mainline welded rail.

     Beneath a mast that once guarded a doubletrack main line here with Gen eral Railway Signal semaphores, two welding crews work on new con tinuous rail at the west end of Easton.
    Pacific RailNews - October 1996 - Page 24

    Beneath a mast that once guarded a doubletrack main line here with General Railway Signal semaphores, two welding crews work on new continuous rail at the west end of Easton.

    It took several days of looking down those narrow forest roads to grasp the enormity of bringing a couple hundred miles of former mainline (including Washington Central's tracks that will soon revert to BNSF ownership) back to life.

    It was then that the complexity of the logistics sank in. After all, you couldn't even bring in on-track work equipment - including ballast trains -until the roadway had been stabilized, and the washouts and rock slides repaired.

    You couldn't have multiple pieces of equipment work around each other, until you had at least some stub-end sidings in place.

    And you couldn't begin work on signal circuits until all the trackwork was complete.

    Somewhere in between, there was a need to install thousands of new concrete and wooden ties, provide new lineside radio transmitters, and complete the countless other tasks that make a railroad work. The pattern of work changed continuously. By mid-August, BNSF already was calling multiple work trains on both sides of the pass, some in support of a P8II concrete tie gang on the east slope. (The P8II, built by Fairmont Tamper, is a complex mobile assembly line of multiple track machines that changes out old wooden ties for concrete ones).

    Burlington Northern Santa Fe outlined the work required to bring this weed-garnished line back to life at higher standards than it saw during its NP heyday:

    • Reconstruction of sidings at Lester (m.p. 59.7 - now a ghost town within the Tacoma watershed) and Kanaskat (m.p. 8 2.3 - the last publicly accessible point on the west slope before the gated - off Tacoma watershed)
    • Siding extension at Easton (m.p. 38.1 - where the BNSF line begins diverging from 1-90)
    • Clearance improvements at two tunnels, 649 feet and 9,834 feet long, respectively, located east of Stampede (m.p. 50)
    • Renovation (essentially total reconstruction) of four snowsheds at the portals of the two tunnels
    • Construction of maintenance-of-way buildings at Kanaskat and Easton, and other small buildings at Lester and the east Portal of the Stampede Tunnel (When I visited at the end of July and beginning of August, modular office buildings were already in place at each of these locations.)
    • Upgrading telecommunications facilities throughout the line from Kanaskat to Easton
    • Installation of some 129,000 new concrete ties and 163,000 new wooden ties along the 230 miles between Pasco and Auburn (At 200-250 concrete ties per load, this translates to more than 600 flatcars of concrete ties alone.)
    • Some 43 miles of new rail along the entire line.

    Performing this work is not a simple task; an army of workers from BNSF and more than half a dozen contractors put in long days throughout summer along 200 miles of twisting, steadily climbing track - the most critical 50 miles located within dense forest.

    Lake Easton and the mountains of Snoqualmie Pass provide a backdrop for crews working on the track.
    Pacific RailNews - October 1996 - Page 25

    Complications developed when the citizenry of towns on the far west end of the line suddenly rose up in arms over having trains on their grade crossings again. Considerable effort on the railroad's part had to be invested to placate residents' concerns. (BNSF reports having "ongoing discussions.")

    Of course, towns people always knew that the tracks were there, and local freights had continued operating 20 miles or so inland from Auburn. But the communities had chosen to plan development on the fallacious assumption that railroads were a dying business, and the dormant line would remain so.

    It isn't as if there's no economic benefit for the area. Through 1999, the railroad is spending about $125 million, just for rehabilitation of the segment between Auburn and Cle Elum. The ports of Seattle and Tacoma are enthusiastically behind the project; so is the state of Washington. Though big chunks of the money are going to outside (and out-of-state) con tractors - the biggest chunk is $9 million awarded to California-based Atkinson Construction Co. for tunnel and snowshed work - these companies are spending money in the area. In addition, local companies are providing everything from dump trucks to excavating equipment.

    These figures do not include the $40 million BNSF had to shell out to repurchase Washington Central (WCRC) trackage. And they do not include the money being spent to put the through segment of the WCRC back into mainline shape.

    All together, BNSF reports it is spending $350 mil lion (through 1999) for capacity improvements on its northern lines. Though not all of this is going into the Stampede Pass line, it's not hard to see that Stampede will eat up the largest portion.

    In the end, the second coming of Stampede Pass has importance well beyond a railroad putting one mothballed line back into service. I t 's an optimistic sign for the railroad industry - underscoring that business is growing, not shrinking.

    It may also make other Class I railroad think twice about spinning off or abandoning lines that could provide badly-needed future capacity.

    IS THE REINCARNATION OF A RAILROAD that's not seen trains for more than 10 years really at hand?

    Well, consider that this is all taking place in the same part of Washington that hosted the strange TV goings-on of TWIN PEAKS and where the town of Roslyn magically transformed itself into quirky Cicely, Alaska, for NORTHERN EXPOSURE.

    To view parts of the Stampede Pass line, I had to cross Iron Horse State Park, a gravel trail limited to non-motorized travel-hiking and mountain bicycles in summer and cross-country skiing in winter. Along this trail, too, I found the rectangular concrete bases that once held signals, for this park occupies the right-of-way of the abandoned Milwaukee Road.

    Crossing the now-empty right of way heading up U.S. Forest Service road 54 to where work is in progress around Stampede Tunnel, I experienced a brief twinge of sadness at what has been lost. However that moment of gloom was quickly replaced by a feeling of hope, because I knew with certainty that before long, there would be more than just work trains heading up the pass.

    Right then, up on Stampede Pass, I could see a jumble of construction machinery and a weed-tangled mainline bordered by still-incomplete sidings, consisting of wobbly panel track lying on bare ground. But in my mind's eye, I could already see a westbound grain train, with helpers, meeting an eastbound double stack.

    Special thanks to John A. Phillips, III, of Kent, Wash., for valuable background information and in field guidance on Stampede Pass, and to Gus Melonas of BNSF for information about the Stampede Pass project.


    Article Details

    • Original Author Ernest H. Robl
    • Source Pacific RailNews
    • Publication Date October 1996

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