Photo by Steve Shay
TRACKING BALLARD TRAIN. Conductor Bernie Roach hops off the Ballard Terminal Railroad's 1940 engine to couple it with a freight car on Shilshole Avenue just west of the Ballard Bridge.

Ballard terminal railroad delivers local freight

The Ballard Terminal Railroad is a three-mile long short line railroad that runs from Northwest 40th Street in Fremont through Ballard along the waterfront to their yard near Ray's Boathouse restaurant.

It is one of three lines operated by the Ballard Terminal Railroad Co., who also operate the Meeker Southern, a five-mile long short line railroad running between Puyallup and McMillan and have just won the bid from the Port of Seattle to provide freight rail service on the Eastside Rail Corridor that runs between Renton and Snohomish.

A short line railroad is one that operates a smaller branch line off of a larger railroad and delivers freight to businesses located along the route. Byron Cole, general manager of the Ballard Terminal Railroad, started the business in 1997 when the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad decided to abandon the Ballard line, which has existed since 1893. When they began, they served three customers but that number has dwindled to one business, the Salmon Bay Sand & Gravel Company on Shilshole Ave.

The Burlington Northern Santa Fe delivers carloads of cement, fly ash, stucco and mortar ordered by Salmon Bay to the Shilshole Yard. The Ballard Terminal Railroad then picks up these cars and delivers them to Salmon Bay.

Due to the increased car and bicycle traffic on the street part of their route the railroad mainly operates at night, making deliveries two to three times a week depending on when the Burlington Northern Santa Fe delivers the freight cars. Cole says that Salmon Bay prefers the freight cars because they are quicker to unload and deliver a lot more material at one time.

Despite the hazards presented on operating a railroad partially along Shilshole Avenue, the Ballard Terminal Railroad received the Jake Award With Distinction in 2007, a safety award given by the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association to railroads with no reportable injuries.

Traffic on the Ballard Terminal's railroads was up 47 percent in 2007 and Cole predicts 2008 will be even better. This is due in large part to businesses reassessing the cost benefit of using rail for their transportation needs. According to Cole, each rail car can carry 100 tons while an 18-wheel truck can only carry 25 tons. Trains are more efficient as a freight engine can move one ton 400 miles on one gallon of diesel fuel while a truck can only move the same weight only 75 miles. Most of the money made by the railroad is put back into maintenance of the tracks and the grade crossings along the route to ensure safety.

Cole is active in the Ballard community and is a member of the Ballard Chamber of Commerce, Ballard Interbay Northend Manufacturing and Industrial Center, or BINMIC, and the North Seattle Industrial Association.

The Ballard Terminal Railroad also gives away more than 20 train ride packages a year to local charities. Cole says there are some plans to expand the Ballard route but there are not as many growth opportunities as he would like. Given the inevitability of rising fuel costs and the demonstrated efficiency of rail transport, the railroad seems poised to take advantage of the situation should such an opportunity arise.

Brian Le Blanc may be reached via

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