It’s been nearly 15 years in the making and 20 years since rail service has operated on the tracks, but the Royal Slope Railroad is finally able to offer a weekly rail service to Othello.
“We began work on the project in 2002, “said Cathy Potter, executive director of the Port of Royal Slope. “We had several local businesses approach us looking for a way to reduce the cost of delivering and receiving commodities such as locally grown produce, federalizers, cattle feed, compost and pumice products to and from the Royal Slope, which would allow them to be competitive in the state, national and international marketplace. That is now possible with the reopening of the rail service.”
The Port had to jump through several hoops along the way, Potter said, that were mandated by the Washington State Department of Transportation including finding enough potential shippers and an operator to rehabilitate and maintain the rail line to Othello.
“We sent out an innumerable amount of emails to WSDOT, the owner of the rail line asking to restore rail service to Royal City. In 2006, with the cooperation from WSDOT the Port held a meeting to discuss rail service. Shippers, operators, our legislators, community members, WSDOT and the neighboring Columbia Basin Railroad were all invited to attend,” Potter said. “Our payloads would be transferred onto the short line in Othello and continue on to the Burlington Northern Santa Fe line in Connell for out of state shipments. It sounded like it was a go, but it didn’t come about.”
The Port took another run at it in 2009. Local businesses helped by writing letters of support for rail service and sent them to Governor Christine Gregoire and local legislators.
A “Right of Entry” was granted from WSDOT in May of that same year allowing the Port access to the rail to see what needed to be done to open it up. In September the Port received the go ahead from WSDOT to remove rockslides and debris along the line. By early October, former Port Commissioner Frank Mianecki moved his equipment up on the line and began the work.
“Frank worked so hard to get rail service here (as did the other commissioners). He took his own equipment including a huge loader and a mini-excavator up on the rail to the rock slide area (near Saddle Mountain) and spent many hours removing the rock and debris along the track, which essentially opened up the line for a Speeder, or Hi-Railer, to travel from Othello to Royal,” Potter said. “He wouldn’t let the Port pay him – not even for rent on the equipment or fuel. He donated it all. He was a great man who cared about this community!”
WSDOT then performed a “Condition Assessment” on the railroad and valued an estimate to restore it to “excepted status” at $1.5 million. With the help of Port Lobbyist Jim Potts and local legislators, the Port was able to secure some money for rehabilitation in 2001.
“Jim put us in touch with Representative Mike Armstrong from Wenatchee who was on the state transportation committee,” Potter said. “He was able to secure $750,000 from the Transportation Budget for the rehabilitation of the line running from Royal to Othello.”
The daunting task was complete in the summer of 2013. With the rehabilitated line in the rear view mirror, there was still a huge hurdle remaining in place … get WSDOT to get an operator for the line. After a failed attempt to do so, the Port decided to try and secure ownership of the rail line.
Companion Bills were then created: Senate Bill 5529, sponsored by Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake in early May of 2015 called for the return ownership of the 26-mile state-owned railroad tracks to the Port of Royal Slope. The Bill cleared the Senate by a lopsided 47-1 vote.
A second Bill, House Bill 1585 sponsored by 13th District Representative Matt Mannweller calling for the transfer of the Royal Slope Railroad to the Port of Royal Slope eventually passed.
Gov. Jay Inslee paved the way for the transaction after he signed HB 1586 on May 18 of 2015 transferring ownership from WSDOT to the Port. The transfer of ownership was made contingent on the Port finding an operator for the line that runs from Royal to the Burlington Northern Santa Fe line in Connell within a five-year period or the deal was off and ownership would revert back to the state.
The announcement of the of the transfer of ownership, Potter said, was received with mixed emotions.
“We (Port officials) were full of excitement, but anxious as well,” she said. “We really wanted to prove we could be successful because of all the help we received from the Legislature.”
The Port immediately advertised for the operator position and in January of 2016 hired Paul Didelius for the job.
“Paul was an experienced operator having worked with several railroad companies in and out of state,” Potter said. “He worked hard to fix up the Taunton Siding and was been able to generate some money for the line by storing empty tank cars off Danielson Road in Othello.”
Didelius then purchased a dark blue locomotive in California, brought it up to the Basin, put his WRL insignia, which stands for Washington Royal Line on the sides of the engine, and over the course of the late winter months of this year, began making trips delivering his payload up the line.
“There have been two shipments of dried corn from Royal City bound for California so far,” Potter said.
On Friday, March 24, Potter was finally able to see the fruits of all the labor that made it all come together.
“I was told the locomotive was going to bring up four containers of fertilizer so I asked the engineer to notify me when he was getting close to Royal,” Potter said. Later that afternoon she received an update the train was 20 minutes outside Echo Valley.
“Echo Valley? I didn’t know where that was so had to have him clarify that. He said it’s where the line turns north to go to Royal- Oh I think we call that Asher Junction.”
Potter arrived at the junction early enough to park off road so she “could get out see the train coming.”
“A few minutes later, I could hear this low rumbling that was getting louder, and then, there it was!” Potter said. “When the locomotive was rounding the bend and blew it’s whistle as it approached Crab Creek Crossing, I understood why it’s called Echo Valley as I heard the echo three or four times. It was awesome!”
“Anyone who wants to get on board and use the rail can contact me at the Port office for information.”