When the Northern Pacific Railway announced it had selected Tacoma as the end of the line for its western route in 1873, Tacomans were jubilant.
The railroad’s presence and connections, they hoped, would make Tacoma the Chicago of the West.
But 10 years later when the NP built its first Tacoma passenger station at South 17th and Commerce streets, the local mood was less joyful.
Tacomans had expected an edifice more magnificent, more imposing than the humble wooden building that they saw rising on the Prairie Line route.
The station was informally christened the “Villard Station,” a mocking slap at NP President Henry Villard who had, in the mind of many Tacomans, promised much but delivered little to match the swagger of the growing “City of Destiny,” said railroad historian Jim Fredrickson,
Thus began Tacoma’s sometimes-sweet, sometimes-sour relationship with its passenger railroad depots. The peak of that relationship is embodied in the magnificence of Tacoma’s copper-domed Union Station on Pacific Avenue, now the Tacoma federal courthouse. That edifice, designed by the Minnesota architectural firm, Reed and Stem, which conceived New York’s Grand Central Terminal, served four passenger railroads over 73 years.
The low point of that relationship was perhaps the original Villard Station or Milwaukee Road’s station built in middle of Tacoma’s gritty Tideflats in the ’50s and used for just seven years.
Another chapter of that station story is about to begin as Tacoma prepares once again to move its rail terminal to a new location. When that new depot opens five years from now, it will become the seventh long-distance passenger rail station in the city’s history. The past changes have been reflections of both the growth and declines of rail passenger travel in the region.
This time, growth in rail travel is propelling the change and bringing the rail passenger business back to its original Prairie Line roots. The northern part of that rail line runs through the southern part of downtown Tacoma, South Tacoma and Lakewood. An extension of that line cuts through DuPont and connects with the Burlington Northern Sante Fe main line at Nisqually. Until 1914, the Prairie Line was the main rail route to Tacoma from the south.
Now with Monday’s reopening of the rehabilitated line through the Nalley Valley for Sound Transit Sounder commuter trains south to Lakewood, the Prairie Line – at least its north half – is well on its way to becoming Tacoma’s sole passenger rail route again. The Sounder route is part of what the Washington State Department of Transportation calls the Point Defiance Bypass, a new, old route that WSDOT says will cut several minutes out of the present Seattle-Portland rail timetable and increase on-time performance of both its regional Cascades corridor trains and Amtrak’s long-distance Coast Starlight. The Coast Starlight connects Seattle with Los Angeles.
To complete the Point Defiance Bypass, WSDOT has received $89 million in federal stimulus money to complete track rehabilitation from Lakewood, where the Sound Transit track upgrade project now ends and the BNSF main line south of DuPont.
When that track project is done – current estimates say it will open in 2017 – all Amtrak passenger train traffic will be rerouted from its present path along the Ruston Way waterfront, through the Nelson Bennett tunnel at Point Defiance and along the Narrows at Salmon Beach and through Steilacoom toward Olympia, to the route through Tacoma’s Nalley Valley, South Tacoma, Lakewood and DuPont.
That Point Defiance route, opened in 1914 to replace the Prairie Line route for Northern Pacific and Union Pacific railroads, will lose its passenger train traffic.
That means the present Amtrak depot built in 1984 along Puyallup Avenue to replace the then-deteriorating Union Station, will have to be replaced with a new depot along the Sounder line.
David Smelser, project manager for the Point Defiance Bypass, said the state has done only the most preliminary kinds of planning for a new station site.
The state can’t act definitively until the project passes its environmental assessment process.
IT’S ALL ABOUT LOCATION
The new track alignment, which parallels East 25th Street north of the Tacoma Dome, offers few spots large enough or flat enough to accommodate a station.
Sounder has used the former Milwaukee Road Railroad freighthouse at East 25th and D streets as a commuter rail station for a decade. The transit agency has built a platform that follows the tracks there to allow passengers to board.
Freighthouse Square, also a retail and restaurant venue, is situated on the Link light rail tracks leading to downtown Tacoma and across the street from a multistory public garage and bus station.
But the requirements for a longer distance passenger station are different from those of a commuter rail station. The 100,000 passengers who now use Amtrak’s Puyallup Avenue station enjoy the services of several Amtrak employees who sell tickets, check baggage and bikes and provide other services needed for longer distance trains. The existing station also has a waiting room for passengers and their friends and relatives, and baggage-storage facilities. The Sounder station has only vending machines to dispense tickets and no ticket agents.
Smelser said WSDOT has commissioned a study to determine what kinds of facilities long-distance passengers need and want.
On the 414-mile Cascade corridor between Vancouver, B.C., and Eugene, Ore., a wide variety of stations function as Amtrak Cascades stops. Those range from the full-service facilities in Seattle, Tacoma, Portland, Everett and other cities, to the bus-stop-like, unmanned shelter at the Tukwila stop. Freighthouse Square could be remodeled to accommodate more extensive station functions, but compared with the kinds of new and rehabilitated facilities that other cities have created for their rail passenger traffic, the old railroad warehouse would possess a kind of barebones, warehouse ambiance. The old warehouse is in receivership with bids being considered from potential new owners.
The Freighthouse site also could present some technical problems as it is presently configured for commuter rail service. Federal standards call for platform heights to match train floor heights for easier handicapped access. But each kind of train using the station, commuter, the Cascades’ European-designed Talgo trains, and the two-level Superliner cars used on the Coast Starlight, have different floor heights. At a larger station, that issue could be solved by creating different platforms for different types of equipment, but the single-track Freighthouse won’t have that alternative.
On the south side of the Freighthouse along a parallel tracks, a new station could be built for longer distance trains, but that land slopes upward steeply. A large, open parking lot west of the freighthouse could also be a station site, but trains stopping there would block D Street. The platform length wouldn’t be long enough at that site to accommodate a train as long as the Coast Starlight.
West of Pacific Avenue, Sound Transit acquired larger tracts of land for construction use. Those tracts are now largely vacant. That site, however, is a two-block walk from the Freighthouse garage, bus station and Link track.
In any case, Smelser said, whatever solution is found, cost would be a large consideration.
Amtrak is mandating that states such as Washington, Oregon and California that sponsor their own train service must pay the expenses and maintenance of the stations, not Amtrak. The days when a city such as Everett can open a new $44 million multi-modal station as it did a decade ago may be gone with the economy’s decline.
At the National Railway Historical Society’s Tacoma chapter President Edward Berntsen said he welcomes the new service that the passenger train rerouting will bring. (The state expects to add two more daily round-trips in the Seattle-Portland corridor to complement the four existing trips when the rehabbed line opens).
Does he think that increasing rail traffic merits a bigger, better station for Tacoma?
“It would be nice, but that’s something that’s beyond our scope of consideration,” he said. “We’re here to record railroad history, not to make it.”
sites Then and now
Tacoma has seen a wide variety of buildings serve as its rail gateway:
“Villard Station”: This 1883 building at South 17th and Commerce streets was nicknamed “Villard Station” after the Northern Pacific Railway president.
Pacific Avenue Station: Replaced the Villard Station with a larger structure on the east side of Pacific Avenue. That station served Tacoma’s Northern Pacific, Union Pacific and Great Northern railroads until 1909.
Tacoma Eastern Station: This wooden structure was located at South 25th and A streets where I-705 now sits. The Milwaukee Road, which bought the Tacoma Eastern in 1918, used this station until 1954.
Union Station: This building finally fulfilled Tacoma’s ambitions when it opened in 1911. NP, GN and UP used the station until 1971, when Amtrak took over the passenger rail business. The last Amtrak train left the station in 1984.
Milwaukee Road Tideflats station: This small, brick station was built near Milwaukee Road’s Tideflats maintenance facilities in 1954. It closed in 1961.
Amtrak Station: This replaced Union Station in 1984 at a site on Puyallup Avenue. It will close in 2017.John Gillie: 254-597-8663 email@example.com John Gillie, staff writer