The Trains, They Are A Changing


Tywen Kelly

Photo by Tywen Kelly

Ellen Ivens-Duran

You know those train tracks that run through campus? They might be due for a facelift.

A city committee on bicycle and pedestrian interests is considering a proposal to turn the seldom-used train tracks into a running or biking path. The considerations are still in their early stages, and no decisions have been made. City Engineer Neal Chavre did not comment on the likelihood of the proposal being a success, but he did explain how the process began.

“The impetus for the whole thing is our Isaacs Avenue [project]…that we’re going to try and get kicked off next spring, and so we have that railroad crossing right there at Penrose,” said Chavre. “Typically when you have a crossing like that on a major road that is not up to standard, when we come through with a road project it’s our responsibility to make those improvements to the crossing and that’s very expensive.”

As an alternative, the city is contemplating discontinuing use of portions of the rail-line that run through town completely.

Photo by Tywen Kelly
Photo by Tywen Kelly

“That line isn’t being used right now. There’s really no customers on it. So we’re working with the company that leases the railroad from Burlington Northern, who’s the owner, they’re going thought the very preliminary stages of determining whether or not it’s feasible to totally abandon that alignment,” said Chavre. “Those decisions haven’t been made. The city can have an opinion or suggest things but it’s not our tracks so we really don’t have much to say about it.”

Paul Gerola, the Economic Development Director of the Port of Walla Walla, was not previously aware of the possibility of the rail line closing. When asked to comment, he stressed that the Port’s position was pragmatic.

“Rail service is an important element to transportation. Having that mode of transportation is important for some users. The port does own some property that is accessible by rail,” said Gerola. “I have not seen any formal letters [about closing the line]. We don’t base any decisions or port policy on rumors.”

Palouse River Coulee, a short-line company owned by Kansas-based Watco Company, currently leases the railroad from Burlington Northern Santa Fe. Estimates vary on how many trains run through Walla Walla a year.

“I’ll say it’s pretty rare. I don’t have actual number on when the last train was that went through there or anything like that,” said Chavre, “We’ve been told different things by different people so maybe I‘ll just not hazard a guess but I do feel comfortable saying that they’re … very very seldom used at this point.”

For students who live adjacent to the tracks, sighting a train can be a thrill. Class of 2014 alum Chase Martin, who recently moved back to Walla Walla, describes how he and his peers got a kick out of spotting trains.

Photo by Tywen Kelly
Photo by Tywen Kelly

“When I was a student, trains coming through town were a rarity and when it happened I remember it was a big deal for off campus houses especially. Students would often stick their heads out windows and kind of run out into their driveways,” said Martin. “It was kind of exciting if one came through town.”

However, infrequent use can cause problems within the city limits. Occasionally, irresponsible or unaware community members will park their cars precariously close to the tracks. Public Information Officer for the Walla Walla Police Department Tim Bennett commented on this phenomenon.

“Basically, it should be common sense to never leave your vehicle parked on train tracks, or nearby. Because even the tracks that go past campus, in front of Clarette’s, I know from my time working patrol that that was an issue,” said Bennett.

Normally, the trains don’t pose a safety risk for anyone in town. However, Officer Bennett can remember one instance where the trains became a threat.

“They go through town at a snail’s space. You could walk faster than these trains move through town,” said Bennett. “I do recall one time where the brakes came loose on or came off on some cars that were parked on the far east end of town and they gained some pretty good speed as they zipped through town, no one was [seriously] hurt but I think there were a couple of vehicles hit.”

Overall, though, the train tracks do not affect Walla Walla very much. Ultimately, it will be up to Palouse River Coulee to decide the fate of the tracks in town. Many people, however, seem excited about the possibility of a path even this early in the process.

“You know, I think it makes a lot of sense to turn it into a bike path or walking bath just because I know a lot of students coming from the north side of Walla Walla walking to campus already walk on the train tracks,” said Martin, “It’s sort of already a thoroughfare, so why not make it a safe, smooth thoroughfare?”

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly attributed quotes from City Engineer Neal Chavre to Deputy City Manager Tim McCarty