SNOHOMISH — Les Crowder sat behind the controls of a diesel-electric switch engine on a freight run from Woodinville.
A part-time engineer who also works in real estate, Crowder was headed to Snohomish. The Bothell man makes the trip for Eastside Community Rail up to two times per week, picking up cars along the route, when there’s demand. Pass by the empty tracks most days, though, and you’d be forgiven for assuming they’re unused.
“It’s funny how many people think this is dead rail,” Crowder said.
The locomotive rumbled, swayed and bumped north toward Snohomish at an average speed of 10 mph. Through Woodinville, Maltby and Clearview, it brushed alder branches and passed over dandelions growing up between railroad ties. Flat scenery of blackberries and alders eventually gave way to broadleaf maples and steep ravines.
Farther ahead, the river valley opened up and the possibilities came into view. The train turned into something more than a utilitarian vehicle for hauling freight: It was a platform for viewing gorgeous green fields cut through by the Snohomish River with the backdrop of the Cascade Range.
That’s the vision: Cyclists could some day bike this route as part of the southern extension of the Centennial Trail. Freight trains could still make their short runs. And, with some investment, the line could host sightseeing trains, ferrying visitors between the antique malls of Snohomish and the wineries of Woodinville.
“It’s a 12-mile linear park. It’s a 12-mile transportation corridor,” county parks director Tom Teigen said. “We’ve made the choice that we are going to design the trail alongside the rail corridor. The tracks, we’re not even taking them out.”
Snohomish County bought a dozen miles of rail corridor from the Port of Seattle in March. The county paid $3.5 million for a section from the King-Snohomish County line to the Snohomish River. It’s part of the larger Eastside Rail Corridor between Renton and Snohomish that the Port of Seattle bought in 2009 and has sold off in sections to local governments.
The Centennial Trail already spans 30 miles from downtown Snohomish to the Skagit County line. The southern addition would take cyclists, walkers and equestrians the whole length of Snohomish County, from north to south. It would connect to King County’s vast trail network and beyond.
“This becomes one of the preeminent trail projects in the nation,” Teigen said.
The parks director expects design work on the trail to be about 30 percent complete by the end of the year, with any construction plans years away.
Unlike Kirkland, which ripped out tracks to build a 5.75-mile gravel trail called the Cross Kirkland Corridor, Snohomish County hopes to maintain a viable rail route.
Even with Teigen’s reassurances, there are worries about whether an active rail line can endure.
It’s going to take money. In the line’s current state, freight trains can travel at a maximum speed of about 10 mph. It’s not suitable for passenger service. Upgrading it to the minimum federal standards for passenger service would take at least $10 million, Teigen and others estimate. Much of that money would probably have to come from private sources or grants.
That sets a high hurdle for dreams of turning the rail line into a tourism magnet. Civic boosters in Snohomish have long touted the idea of a dinner train similar to the Spirit of Washington, which ran for 15 years between Renton and Woodinville, until service ended in 2007.
Snohomish Mayor Karen Guzak concedes that, “The money, from what I can see, is simply not there.” Tourist trains are still in their long-term plans, though.
“We count on tourism a lot in Snohomish for the health of our economy,” Guzak said.
The local freight business hasn’t been enjoying such a smooth ride either.
Eastside Community Rail serves four customers. It takes empty cars from businesses such as Boise Cascade’s Maltby distribution center and Kent Gypsum Supply to the major east-west rail line that passes through Snohomish. It also takes loaded cars south to those same businesses.
One of the railroad’s customers, Spectrum Glass, announced it would shut down this month because it is unable to comply with more-stringent environmental regulations. That will take away a big chunk of business.
As is, the railroad only delivered about 180 cars last year, Teigen said.
The railroad’s employees worry about the prospect of the line going dormant. They continue on for now.
Eastside Community Rail is one of three short-line railroads operated by Ballard Terminal Railroad Co. of Seattle. It begins in Woodinville, next to King County’s Sammamish River Trail, a couple of miles south of the county line.
Traveling through Woodinville’s industrial streetscape, conductor Nathan Proudfoot waved a thick-gloved hand at motorists stopped behind crossing arms.
At 33, Proudfoot is just over half the age of Crowder, the engineer. More than just a job, this work fuels his passion for rail. Between stops, he talks history, including how the Seattle, Lake Shore &Eastern Railway started running this route in 1888. He revels in the prospect of cycling or riding a dinner train along the same path.
“I love my history as much as I love my future,” he said.
He’s not the only one.
Clyde Byrum, a retired aerospace engineer, also had hitched along for the ride — in his own caboose. The Whidbey Island man has been into railroads since he was a kid growing up in Chicago.
“The bug bit me,” he said. “That was it. Just loved the trains.”
Byrum’s not an employee; he’s a fan. He volunteers his time to keep the line up and running. During the trip, he extolled the efficiency of freight trains and how they help relieve traffic congestion by taking trucks off the road. He warned that there’s a low probability of freight ever restarting, if it’s forced to stop on this line.
It took about three hours for the train to reach its destination across the street from Harvey Field in Snohomish.
Likewise, county leaders say they’ll oversee a slow, deliberate process to build out the corridor’s potential.
“It’s setting the stage for something that’s going to be there for multiple generations,” Teigen said.
Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @NWhaglund.