Railcars idled by recession line I-5, area pocketbooks

When you drive south on Interstate 5 south of Olympia, the scenery on the west side of the freeway is framed by mile upon mile of rail cars.

Those rail cars are a casualty of a precipitous drop in import and export activity through American ports. For example, the drop in import activity at the Port of Tacoma has taken a 20 percent to 40 percent bite out of the railroad’s activity, said Dale King, Tacoma Rail superintendent.

But the rail cars also are a revenue generator for the City of Tacoma’s shortline railroad. Tacoma Rail expects to make $500,000 in storage fees this year from its little-used track between Frederickson and Chehalis.

During better times, they would be moving between the West Coast and the Midwest carrying containers loaded with electronics, auto parts and consumer goods made in Asia to American retailers and manufacturers.

Working with major railroads and rail car leasing companies, Tacoma Rail has parked some 1,900 unused cars on its tracks.

About 1,500 of those are the kind used to carry containers stacked two-high across the country. The other 400 are what are known as center-beam cars used to carry lumber.

The string of cars is unbroken except for road crossings and rail junctions.

“We left a gap in the string of cars to allow access to the Great Wolf Lodge and for Global Locomotive,” said King. Global Locomotive is leasing a former Tacoma Rail shop where it is overhauling locomotives.

Tacoma Rail’s car storage business is not uncommon these days. Shortline railroads around the country are charging railroads and rail car owners to park cars on their tracks during the recession.

According to the Association of American Railroads, 23.8 percent of the nation’s rail cars are now in storage, or 365,343 cars. The number continues to grow by 700 to 1,000 per month, said Holly Arthur, an association spokeswoman.

Tacoma Rail charges car owners about $150 a month per car to store their cars. Switching charges are extra.

The railroad has told car owners that the first cars that went into storage will have to be the last out when the economy heats up.

“We’ve told them that it’s pretty much a ‘last in, first out’ deal,” said King. “We’re not going to be moving miles of cars to dig out a few that are in the middle of the line.”

John Gillie: 253-597-8663