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Getting there: WSDOT receives $72.8 million federal grant to repair ‘dilapidated’ railroads in Eastern Washington

By Elena Perry, The Spokesman-Review
Published: October 2, 2023, 9:46am

SPOKANE — Washington’s longest short line railroad system is getting “transformational” updates to improve efficiency and safety in freight, funded by a $72.8 million grant from the federal government.

A Washington State Department of Transportation-owned rail line, the Palouse River and Coulee City Railroad’s nearly 300 miles accounts for three branches spanning the counties of Spokane, Whitman, Lincoln, Adams and Grant.

Largely for transporting wheat, three state-owned rails are dotted with grain elevators and each connect to national railways and barges, giving wheat growers access to national and worldwide markets. Historically, over a fifth of Washington’s wheat travels via the system, according to WSDOT.

The $72.8 million in federal award money is met with $39.2 million from state, local and private sources, all going toward the renovation project.

Improvements on the rail’s 135 of 297 miles will make the rail system more efficient, reliable and safer, according to the department.

“We’ll be replacing worn rail, rotten railroad ties, rehabilitating dilapidated roadway crossings and resurfacing tracks,” said Mike Gribner, WSDOT assistant secretary and chief engineer.

Due to the poor condition of the current rails, trains chug along at 10 mph; upgrades will allow engineers to travel at 25 mph. Updated rails can bear the weight of modern, 286,000-pound cars already supported by national systems. Faster travel and easier connection to national railways means economic benefit for wheat growers, said WSDOT spokesperson Janet Matkin.

“It’s going to provide them with lower cost, faster shipments, and a more reliable transportation system for their product,” Matkin said.

Some improvements will strengthen rails, a proactive measure to prevent train derailments.

“The infrastructure on this railroad is incredibly old,” said Jeff Van Schaick, senior vice president of external relations at Jaguar Transport Holdings, a private company that operates on the line. “By improving the rail, making it heavier in 3-foot sections, installing more ties, it’s going to allow the trains to move in a way that significantly reduces the derailments that can possibly happen.”

The department purchased the corridor from private ownership in 2004. Gribner said it was neglected, with necessary maintenance consistently deferred. The department has been making incremental repairs on miles of track and rail and some bridges with previously doled out state funding. The state will continue to fund renovations in biannual installments of $6.7 million until 2031.

Funding from the federal government comes from part of a national effort to improve railway safety and prepare infrastructure to bear the weight of heavier, faster cars. Washington’s railroad award is one of the largest allotments from the federal package spread out among 35 states.

The department has yet to determine a timeline on the construction of these improvements, according to Matkin.