An estimated $106 million in rail work aims to boost capacity on BNSF Railway's Washington system this year — much of it on the century-old line connecting Vancouver to the Columbia River Gorge.
Construction crews on Thursday finished replacing various sections of rail between Vancouver and Pasco, said BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas. The two-month job wrapped up near Home Valley, just east of Stevenson.
That wasn't the only project on the slate for BNSF's Gorge route. A separate effort to recondition the railroad bed beneath the tracks is expected to continue through the middle of this month, using an 1,800-foot Loram "undercutter" machine along the line. The 30-person crew accompanying it began last month in Washougal, Melonas said, and is working its way east toward Home Valley.
"All that allows for more reliable, safe railroads," he said.
The work comes amid controversial plans for six coal export facilities in the Northwest, expected to bring a huge increase in coal trains and rail traffic to the region if built. That's led some wonder if recent projects are moving ahead with that possibility in mind.
Melonas didn't specifically say whether BNSF's Gorge rail improvements are related to coal. Currently, about 30 trains pass through the corridor each day, he said.
"This is one of the busiest rail routes in the Pacific Northwest, and we handle all types of commodities on this route," Melonas said. "We make improvements to handle current and projected volumes."
In fact, Washington is far from the only area BNSF plans to rebuild this year. The company has mapped out a systemwide capital investment program of $3.9 billion in 2012. BNSF tracks reach 28 U.S. states and two Canadian provinces.
In Washington alone, this year's slate includes 1,020 miles of track surfacing and undercutting work, plus the replacement of 56 miles of rail and 178,000 ties. New steel rails weigh in at 141 pounds per three feet of material, Melonas said.
"This is state-of-the-art rail that's being installed," he said.
BNSF will also focus some attention on the north-south corridor between Vancouver and Seattle. Local support crews have helped improvement efforts along the way, according to Melonas.