Tacoma Rail Sells Mountain Division to Rainier Rail

Written by Steve Carter
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Tacoma Rail Muni Yard, Tacoma, Wash. All photos by Steve Carter.

Tacoma Municipal Belt Line (DBA Tacoma Rail) has completed a years-long divesture of its Mountain Division, selling the bulk of it to Rainier Rail LLC (reporting mark RNIR). Rainier Rail is in the process of absorbing WRL LLC.

With purchase of the remainder of the Mountain Division, Rainer Rail will have access to Frederickson. This will allow Rainier Rail to service the industries there, which include a Boeing facility, two James Hardie facilities and several others.

Tacoma Rail originally consisted of three divisions: the Tideflats Division, the Mountain Division and the Capitol Division, now known as the Lakewood Subdivision. The Tideflats Division is the location of Tacoma Rail’s offices, locomotive and maintenance facilities. It’s also the focus of operations, serving four intermodal terminals, three RORO (roll-on/roll-off) motor vehicle terminals, U.S. Oil & Refining and a handful of smaller industries. Tacoma Rail also interchanges with BNSF and Union Pacific. The Capitol Division included lines in the Olympia area and industries in South Tacoma and Lakewood. Contracts for operations on the Olympia lines, owned by UP and BNSF, were not renewed several years ago, leaving just the contract for operations on the Lakewood Subdivision.

WRL 5119, Nortbound at Greendale, Chehalis Branch, Roy, Wash., May 16, 2023. This is the first Rainier Rail train to Frederickson.

For some time now, the Mountain Division, a former Milwaukee Road property, has been considered an unnecessary burden. The division has lost $11 million over the past 10 years. There is a $40 million estimate for rehabilitation, and the income projected for the next 10 years is about $20 million. In addition, the lease on the unique pair of SD70ACe-P4s (6 axles, 4 traction motors) has expired. By ending service on the Mountain Division, these locomotives can be returned to Progress Rail.

The Mountain Division originally included three lines: the portion between Tacoma and Frederickson, the M line and the C line. Tacoma to Frederickson ran from just outside UP’s Fife yard to Frederickson. The M line ran from Frederickson to Morton, including the Mount Rainier Scenic Railway. The C line ran from Frederickson to Chehalis. Many industries were served at Fredrickson, but far fewer on the other two lines. Over the years the customer base has shrunk, with no business on the M line and only one on the C line. The Mountain Division ran through the city limits of Tacoma; unincorporated Pierce County, where Frederickson is located; and Chehalis, in Thurston County.

Tacoma Rail Job 103 with TMBL 7001, southbound on the Highline, crossing the Puyallup River, Tacoma, Wash., May 2023.

The portion in Thurston County was sold several years ago to WRL, with operating rights to Mckenna, just into Pierce County. WRL increased the customer base on the line with two additions. WRL also gained interchange with the BNSF at Centralia and UP at Chehalis. WRL is headquartered at Western Junction, also the former headquarters of the Chehalis Western Railroad.

Tacoma Rail is a Tacoma City Public Utility, and thus the city owned all of the right-of-way and various other properties.

This latest development was the sale of the Tacoma-to-Frederickson line and the M line to WRL, which will soon officially be Rainier Rail, with RNIR reporting marks. However, the City will retain ownership of the portion of the Tacoma to Fredrickson line within the city limits, about six miles of track and structure, minus a one-mile stretch sold to Sound Transit for use by passenger and commuter trains as part of Sound Transit’s Lakewood Subdivision. This leaves just under five miles of track, for which Tacoma Rail will file for abandonment. This section is the costliest to maintain and includes the steepest part of the line, a 3.75% grade, a bridge over the BNSF/UP lines and a bridge and trestle over the Puyallup River, both of which are former Milwaukee Road structures built in 1917.

Tacoma Rail Job 103 with TMBL 7002, southbound at Midland, Tacoma, January 2023.

The portion of the Mountain Division between the Lakewood Sub and Frederickson will end up with two owners, City of Tacoma and Rainier Rail, and no viable freight traffic. Ideas for its use have include a bike and hiking trail or an extension of Sound Transit Sounder service to Frederickson. It’s hard to tell what might happen, especially with two owners and a large number of residential properties along the line. Tacoma Rail will continue to use its former right-of-way that is part of the Lakewood Sub to make light engine moves between the Lakewood Division and the Tideflats Division, changing that routing from UP to BNSF.

WRL 5119, working industries in Frederickson. First Rainier Rail train to Frederickson, Wash.

WRL/Rainier Rail plans to use its portion of the north end of the Mountain Division (north of Frederickson) for car storage. There are four sidings, but two of them will require some significant work to be put back in service. Currently the C line, Frederickson to Western Junction, is an FRA Class 1 track operation. Upgrading the line to Class 2 or 3 track is also planned for the near future.

With Rainier Rail’s newly acquired access to Frederickson, a little bit of the Milwaukee Road survives. More important, vital rail service to this growing industrial area will continue. Tacoma Rail is now better able to concentrate on its core business and is free of the maintenance and operation of a challenging and costly division.

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