Northwest News

Vandalism threatens Tacoma Rail service in Olympia and Tumwater

Tacoma Rail’s presence in Thurston County might have reached the end of the line after an engine was damaged by a concrete block on the tracks last summer in Tumwater.

Known for its red-and-white striped engines, the short-line railroad transfers freight cars to the larger Union Pacific and BNSF railroads for shipment across the United States. Twice a week, Tacoma Rail serves South Sound customers such as the Port of Olympia and Mottman Industrial Park.

However, vandalism by an unknown person has delivered a financial blow that could derail local service.

Just before 9 p.m. Aug. 15, a Tacoma Rail train was southbound when the crew spotted a log on the tracks and several pieces of ballast — stones that hold the wooden ties in place.

The engineer slowed down to stop and remove the log, but failed to see the large concrete block that blended in with the ballast, according to the accident report. The train struck the concrete block, which then bounced between the ground and engine as it was dragged for about 100 feet.

The concrete block punctured the engine’s main fuel tank, causing an estimated 1,700 gallons of diesel to spill behind the Bonneville power station at 54th Avenue and Trosper Road.

The state Department of Ecology reports the site has been cleaned up and groundwater wasn’t contaminated. Crews disposed of about 1,823 tons of contaminated soil. The Thurston County Health Department later sampled drinking water from five nearby wells and found no contamination, according to the DOE.

Documents show the cleanup cost Tacoma Rail about $412,224, but the total is closer to $430,000 when adding internal labor costs, Superintendent Dale King said. Tacoma Rail — which is owned by the City of Tacoma as part of Tacoma Public Utilities and operates at cost — generates about $1 million annually from the Belmore Line that runs from Olympia to Tumwater.

“That’s half our revenue gone in one shot,” King said. “It’s put the entire operation in question.”

King said negotiations are underway this month with BNSF Railway to determine whether Tacoma Rail will continue to lease the Belmore Line.

The damage caused by the concrete block isn’t entirely to blame. The incident coincides with a declining demand for train service, King said, noting the effect of lower oil prices on crude oil shipping. At one time, the Belmore Line showed promise when ceramic proppants — used in gas and oil fracking — had been moving regularly out of the Port of Olympia.

“We’re seriously considering not renewing our lease,” King said.

The Port of Olympia is also discussing the Belmore Line’s fate with Tacoma Rail and awaits the next step, spokeswoman Kathleen White said.

“We’re confident that we’ll continue to have rail service at the port,” White told The Olympian.

As for the concrete block, Tumwater police confirmed that no suspects have been identified. The crime was reported as vandalism and destruction of property.

Tacoma Rail is offering a $1,000 reward for information leading to an arrest in the case. Other agencies involved in the investigation included the FBI, the Transportation Security Administration, Thurston County Sheriff’s Office and BNSF special agents.

Tacoma Rail even hired a private investigator to find out who committed the crime.

“We’ve kind of given up,” he said, noting that an arrest does not mean the suspect will be able to pay restitution. “It’s like throwing good money after bad.”