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RAILFANNING in the PACIFIC NORTHWEST

By Mike Stella

"Cross over the Bridge" is what they sing in Ballard but I had to wait about 15 minutes. The day was beautiful and those Seattle "Bluest Skies".

 

Our cruise ship pulled into Seattle from Alaska on June 30th and a weekend visit with my wife's girlfriend kept us from flying back to Los Angeles for three days. While driving across the ship channel to Ballard, I spotted a little blue diesel that needed a bit of investigation, so I left the girls to visit while I took a little jaunt. When I got to the Ballard Bridge it was up!

I waited about 15 minutes and enjoyed the views and quiet traffic while waiting for the ships to pass.

More ship traffic then rail traffic so the BNSF Bascule is normally "up". Gotta like ships!
A line of derelict BNSF switchers. One would look good at my house.

 

 

Once across the channel, I stopped by the BNSF Interbay facility to look over the diesel refueling tracks and a line of engines that have seen much better days.

 

No "Builder's Plate" but I think this might be a Porter?

 

 

My reason for walking over here was a few blocks away and I worked my way to the Coastal Transportation Company where that little blue diesel was parked.

 

They probably would give you a ride if they were operating today.

 

I got a pretty good look at it as nobody came running up demanding to know what I was doing or why I was on the property. I even went inside the Main Office and had a nice chat with the folks that told me all about their little blue engine and when it was used and what for. Seems you can save a lot of switching fees from the BNSF when you have your own diesel switcher! I think it kinda looks like a Lionel #41, don't you?

Saturday, July 1st, and the Empire Builder backs onto Track #5.

Up early Saturday morning, the girls had a day of shopping all planned. I had plans of my own and headed for Amtrak's King Street Station to catch the Southbound Coast Starlight for a quick ride to Portland . When the departure time came, there was no train in the station. The Eastbound Empire Builder pulled out from the tunnel under the heart of Seattle and arrived about 30 minutes EARLY from Chicago . It passed through the station and backed into Track #5 to clear the main for the still missing Coast Starlight.

Here's the Coast Starlight back to the station passing through the baseball stadium.

 

 

I wandered down to the very end of the platforms to catch a very long Coast Starlight backing under the movable roof of the Seattle Mariner's baseball stadium and onto Track #3 for loading.

 

The Seattle skyline, the Empire Builder, the Coast Starlight…doesn't get any better.

 

 

Stopped on Track #3 with over 12,000 HP of Genesis locomotives tied to the front, I got a picture of an event that really isn't supposed to happen.

 

 

The Coast Starlight should be rolling southbound before the Empire Builder arrives. Anyway, as I snapped my picture all I could hear was Perry Como singing about the "bluest skies" over Seattle . A picture postcard day to be sure. “ALL ABOARD!” We left almost one hour late with about 1200 miles to go to Los Angeles but I'm getting off much sooner.

We "fly" past Boeing Field where decades of aviation history abound.

We passed by Boeing Field where B-17s once filled the runways and where you can now spot a Concord and an XB-70. A short while later and we pull into our first station stop in Tacoma . This is my hometown, born and raised. Served by the Union Pacific; Northern Pacific; Great Northern; and my favorite; The Milwaukee Road. Gone for 25 years and you can still spot signs of the Milwaukee everywhere. If you look on top of the through Truss Bridge, you can see the pole that once carried the 3000 volt wires that fed the cantenary where Bi-Polars once pulled the Olympian Hiawatha into the final stop on its' run from Chicago.

The old Milwaukee Line crosses the Puyallup River and the BNSF.

 

 

We didn't make up any time getting to Tacoma and there was a slow freight pulling out just as we left the station and I was thanking for the triple track main that allowed us to get ahead of it. The Tacoma Roundhouse is long gone, but the little turntable is still there but doesn't look like it can be used.

I spent my younger days here when a Roundhouse was filled with Baldwin switchers.

Wish I had a bigger back yard! I spent the first 19 years of my life in Tacoma but never saw much of it from a train. We crossed the Tacoma Waterway and headed around the bay towards our next stop.

Downtown Tacoma from the Tacoma Waterway.
Salmon Beach , always an "artists community" and with a terrific view of the BNSF.

 

There's a long tunnel under the North end of Tacoma and when daylight is again encountered, a quick look back and you can see the very old community of Salmon Beach . No autos here. It is a good hike down to water level from above.

 

A second Tacoma Narrows Bridge (but actually the 3rd built!)

 

A short distance farther and the tracks pass under the Tacoma Narrows Bridge , first opened in 1940, and destroyed a few months later by high winds. Very famous was the “Galloping Gerty” and today a second span is being built across the narrows so the local folks can enjoy eight lanes of stalled traffic instead of four!

 

The trip along the shores of Puget Sound gives the riders panoramic views that are unequaled in beauty. The Olympic Mountains; the islands that require a ferry ride to get to; the beaches; the recreational boaters; the occasional northbound freight train; all terrific.

Ferries to the islands along Puget Sound . A great place to live.
This is the way to railfan along the main line! An Inspection Palace .

 

We never did make up any time on the run to Portland but at least we didn't lose any additional time either. Vancouver, Washington and at least this trip the Columbia River drawbridge is closed. Looking out the lounge car window I spotted a car which I believe is a VIP inspection car.

 

Theater seating in the rear to inspect the line from the end of a train. Leaving the station we immediately cross the Columbia River and then the Willamette River before making the turn into Portland Union Station. This is one city that really knows how to treat their Railroad history.

Portland Union Station. What a beautiful railroad structure.

"My" Coast starlight on the far track, the Eastbound Empire Builder in the middle, an Amtrak Coaster on the near track. A lot of action in a short time in Portland .

 

The station is pretty much original and almost 100% intact with its platforms and train sheds and massive clock tower that lights up every night proclaiming "Go By Train"! This is where I say good-bye to the Coast Starlight and depart the train to spend a few hours in Portland before catching the Eastbound Empire Builder (Portland Section) for a trip along the Columbia River heading towards Spokane . The Empire Builder is already here and so is one of Amtrak's Coasters along with the Starlight I came in on.

 

For a little while the Portland station is one very busy place. The original ticket counter; the news stand; the snack shack; the baggage check area; all seem to be as they always were and some 1940s music would have certainly added to the overall ambiance.

Crossing the Columbia River looking over to the I-5 highway bridge.

The layover in Portland provided ample time to go into town and get "Dinner to go" as the Portland section of the Empire Builder is without a diner. We departed Union Station right on time at 4:45 PM and headed back the way we came across the Columbia River to Vancouver . What a picture as Mt. Hood loomed over the city and the river. The trip through the Columbia River Gorge takes a railroad backseat to nobody. Simply beautiful is the run on the North side of the river on former SP&S tracks.

 

Scenes along the Columbia Gorge. Another beautiful day in Washington .

 

 

Tunnels through solid rock and passing damns with names like Bonneville.

 

Bonneville Dam, the first of about 5 we pass. Ship locks allow for cargo to go all the way to Idaho !

When the river turns to the North, so do the tracks, and as the sun set, we approached the Tri-cities of Washington arriving an hour late due to a lot of slow running along the river. Can't take pictures at night but leaving Pasco an hour late and arriving in Spokane right on time made the ride a bit bumpy for pictures anyway! This is the only time I have ever been on Amtrak when an hour has been made up between stations. How'd they do it? Spokane is known as the heart of the Inland Empire of Washington State. The Portland section of the Empire Builder is joined here with the Seattle section to create one long transcontinental train that at least has a diner for the run to Chicago . It's almost a two hour layover to combine the train while on the other track, the Westbound Empire Builder arrives to be broken into the same two sections, one going Portland and the other to Seattle . I'm ticketed for the Seattle section and find a seat in the last row of the last car as any true railfan would do. This section has the diner and I'm planning on breakfast in the Cascades as we get underway right on schedule at 2:15 AM . Pitch black outside; I am hoping that the sun will come up before the train reaches the middle of the state where it descends to cross the Columbia River before arriving in Wenatchee . I get my wish and at about 6:00 AM. , we are sitting in the Wenatchee station.

Wenatchee in the early morning, July 2nd. Lots of new riders embarked.
In only 8 miles we will again see daylight!

 

Now we are in the foothills of the Cascades and start the climb up to Cascade Tunnel, an eight mile long bore completed in 1929 and for decades, the longest bore in the Western Hemisphere . I am waiting to snap a picture as we enter the tunnel and as it goes dark the announcer blares "Last call to Breakfast"!!

 

I make my way to the diner, order my food, drink a cup of Seattle 's Best coffee, and get served all before the train emerges into daylight! They say it takes about 16 minutes for Amtrak to pass through the tunnel. They are NOT doing 60 MPH! We follow the Skycomish River down the mountainside and the scenery is breathtaking.

Heading down the West side of the Cascades we follow the Skycomish River .
Everett has a new station and the Sounder's await tomorrow's commute.

 

 

Soon we are on flat land and pull into Everett , where a SOUNDER commuter train awaits the Monday morning rush.

 

Old ship wreck along the shores of Puget Sound . A very pretty ride.

 

We leave the East/West main and join the North/South main that will take us into Seattle traveling once more along the shores of Puget Sound .

 

 

Amtrak is traveling on BNSF tracks that hug the shoreline with beaches to the West and beautiful homes to the East. A wide spot in the line is where a siding was constructed to the largest building ever erected.

This junction allows Boeing 747 and 767 parts to "get up the hill."

Hint…they build the 747s there.

Crossing the Bascule Bridge tells us we are almost home.

 

 

You know you are very close to Seattle 's Union Station when you cross the Bascule Bridge over the same ship channel we photographed yesterday in Ballard.

 

A fully operational Roundhouse on the BNSF at Interbay Yard.

 

 

We travel through the Interbay yard and get to see a fully operating Roundhouse and turntable. How many of these are still around?

 

 

Under Seattle and daylight will find us in Union Station.

 

 

Finally we plunge into the tunnel that takes the railroad under the heart of the city and arrive at Union Station about 30 minutes ahead of schedule.

 

 

Just like yesterday, the train must pull through the station and back into Track #5. Total time spent on this Pacific Northwest adventure --- 24 hours. Total cost --- $110. I can't think of a better way to spend $4 an hour!

 
 
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