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At its heart, this is still a rail town

Today’s events marking the centennial of Tacoma’s Union Station are really two commemorations in one. May 1 also marks the 40th anniversary of Amtrak’s launch.

But then, May is a momentous month for rail history as it relates to Tacoma; May 10 will be the 142nd anniversary of the driving of the Golden Spike in Utah to complete the country’s first transcontinental rail link. That touched off a flurry of ventures to build other routes to the West Coast, which led to the Northern Pacific’s efforts to get to Puget Sound, which led to Tacoma’s brief status as the winner of the Northwest’s terminus sweepstakes, and you know the story since then.

It would have been a nice bit of symmetry if the Northern Pacific’s completion or Tacoma’s selection or the first train into town had occurred in May; alas, history was not so cooperative.

It also might have been nice if one of the attendees at today’s festivities was an actual train; alas, while one can see and hear trains from the station-turned-federal-courthouse, Union Station no longer has a direct connection to the tracks.

Even so, the Union Station celebration should serve not just as an occasion upon which to reflect on the city’s accomplishment of saving an architectural gem. It should also help reinforce this very contemporary point: Tacoma is a railroad town.

That point occasionally gets lost in the attention paid to container ports, interstate highways and even air cargo. But the significance of rail is not just a matter of historical interest; it remains a crucial element in the region’s economic future. As attractive as Tacoma’s harbor might be, it wouldn’t have been terribly useful to anyone more than 100 years ago, and certainly wouldn’t be of much value now, without a railroad to get freight to and from the ships. That the Port of Tacoma is a major player in Asian container traffic today is due to its rail connections, via BNSF and the Union Pacific, to the Midwest and East.

Tacoma is also one of the few towns in the U.S. with its own railroad, that being the municipally owned Tacoma Rail which operates over 204 miles of track. Tacoma Rail has been heavily reliant on container traffic into and out of the port, which hasn’t been a robust business. In recent years it’s been looking at what it might do with its lines outside the Tideflats beyond providing storage space for idled container cars (which it has done). In recent weeks it has announced new customers including a scrap-steel sorting facility at Frederickson that will use Tacoma Rail to move containers between the industrial park and the seaport.

The current and future relevance of rail to Tacoma is evident in ongoing debates about moving Amtrak trains to the Point Defiance cutoff through Lakewood – thus relieving some freight congestion – and proposals for enlarging the Stampede Pass tunnel to accommodate double-stack container cars and provide more east-west freight capacity.

While discussions still rage about the viability of passenger rail, especially in the long-haul market, there are few such questions about the freight side of the business. There are some commodities and products that are just too big and too heavy to move economically on land except by rail. The big money seems to think so. Warren Buffett famously made his “all-in bet on the American economy” by buying the part of BNSF he didn’t already own. The largest individual shareholder in Canadian National? Bill Gates.

Saturday May 7 is National Train Day, with events scheduled at Lacey, Kelso, Bellingham and Snoqualmie. In Tacoma, it’s been Train Day every day for most of its history – and likely will be in its history still to come.

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at bill.virgin@yahoo.com

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