Cheney short-line railroad gears up for busy year
Eastern Washington Gateway Railroad busy with track improvements to allow added business
An EWGR train brings grain cars to Cheney last summer to meet Burlington Northern Santa Fe trains that will take the product to world markets. The local short-line railroad expects business to remain brisk as the grain hauling picks up pace later this month.
When the railroading season really kicks into high gear later this month the Eastern Washington Gateway Railroad will be roaring to go.
A lot of work during the time when train traffic is slower will hopefully keep trains running more smoothly – and swiftly – from the EWGR’s hub here in Cheney.
Those traveling SR 904 recently might have noticed increased activity along the tracks near the Cheney Rodeo Grounds where crews have been busy replacing ties. Others might have noticed a shiny new look to some of the short-line railroad’s locomotives.
“They’re actually cleaned up, they haven’t been repainted,” EWGR president John Howell said. Once the weather got a little more hospitable crews took soap and a scrub brush to them, Howell explained. “They look a whole lot better when they’re shiny and washed.”
The EWGR is owned by U.S. Rail Partners, Ltd. Based out of Lemont, Ill., just a little southwest of Chicago. It operates between Cheney and Coulee City, plus runs a spur line into Airway Heights to service some industrial customers. The railroad has about 110 miles of track that once belonged to the Northern Pacific Railroad.
And it’s the paying attention to that track that is the most important. Fixing up the right-of-way and making it more efficient is at the root of the success of the railroad that runs over tracks now owned by the state of Washington.
In the summer of 2012 crews replaced over 6,400 ties at the general rate of about 2,600 per mile.
More importantly, Howell said, the work was done on the west end, between Coulee City and Hartline, as well as east towards Creston. “We repaired another 10,000 or more and we’re able to restore a 25-mile-per-hour speed on those sections of track.” Before, those sections had a 10 mph maximum speed.
The state, through a grant from the Department of Commerce, began work near Creston at milepost 65 going east. Winter interrupted that project but Howell said once the weather warms, “And you’re working with stone, not mud,” upgrades and improvements will continue on track heading towards Deep Creek.
The 2013 maintenance program, which Howell was working on while on the road tending to business related to two other lines U.S. Rail owns in Pennsylvania and in Kansas and Oklahoma, includes more than ties. “We’ll not just be repairing ties this season but grade crossings,” he said.
This is all in anticipation of what Howell hopes is another year like the previous two. The line suffered through the recession, but business has improved significantly, not so much due to a slightly improved economy, but because of Mother Nature.
“We’ve had three major factors that have been at work here,” Howell explained.
The first has been two very good harvests. “The 2011 and the 2012 harvests were both good, they were above average,” Howell said. “That itself leads to the possibility of hauling more cars of wheat, some barley, from the West Plains, to Cheney and out to the exporters.”
The EWGR’s principal customer is Central Washington Grain Growers, based in Waterville, Wash. They have been working with Burlington Northern-Santa Fe to run bigger trains than had previously been used on the line.
The BNSF routinely brings 110 hopper cars to and through Cheney. Those trains are pared down to operate on the EWGR tracks and are referred to as shuttle trains, or co-loads.
“What that did was to allow BNSF to offer an incentive for the shippers like they do with the shippers out in North Dakota, Montana, those places,” Howell said.
The third factor was Central Washington Grain Growers involved other shippers on the line into the program. “So the net result of all three factors working was an increase in the number of cars shipped,” Howell said. “That’s been very helpful.”
The increased business has a little double-edged sword effect, Howell said. While it provides more money to improve the track, at the same time it delivers more wear and tear.
“Certainly the factors are in place,” Howell said for another good year.
One never knows how the 2013 wheat harvest is going to be. “Literally until the day the harvest begins to come into the bins, no one out there, even the experts, are willing to predict much,” Howell said.
Howell said he has not heard of any weather-related problems that might affect this summer’s harvest. “We had enough snow cover and there wasn’t a lot of windburn, but I think we’re in really good shape for this point and time of the year.”
The EWGR, Howell figures, derives 90 percent of its business from grain hauling, with Seaport Steel in Airway Heights accounting for the rest.
Under lease from the Washington State Department of Transportation, EWG operates the former “CW Branch” with four locomotives hauling either BNSF cars or those from private shippers. The line runs two to three trains a week but as soon as grain shipments increase later in March that frequency increases to two a day, Howell said.
Paul Delaney can be reached at email@example.com.