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BNSF's 7.8 Mile Snowshed

Posted by Robert W. Scott
on Wednesday, February 22, 2017

In reading the recent blog by Justin Franz on the weather woes that BNSF was experiencing over Marias Pass, he noted some similarities between the crossing of the Rockies and the Cascades with their proximity to dangerous avalanche chutes that draw down to the rail line from high up on the mountain sides. He noted specifically a stories where avalanches had struck trains and equipment that resulted in deaths along the stretch from Glacier Park and Java. Many may also know about the tragedy that struck high in the Cascade Mountains at the Great Northern Railway town of Wellington, Washington in 1910 when an avalanche struck two occupied trains that had been stranded by the weather for nine days. The resulting avalanche resulted in the deaths of 96 people making it the deadliest avalanche in US history, a rank that still stands to this day. The book Vis Major by Martin Burwash does an amazing job at looking at this tragedy and telling the stories of the people who were involved in it. 

The Great Northern worked hard to try to protect more areas of the rail line from future weather events by constructing 40,000 feet of snowsheds on the line. They also tried to lessen the negative connotation of the name of the town of Wellington by renaming it to Tye. Plans were to bypass this line all together by constructing a new tunnel that would be 500 feet lower in elevation. Construction began on the new Cascade Tunnel in 1925 and opened for service in 1929, eliminating 21 miles of rail line. The new route took it under the mountains for 7.8 miles, bypassing the most slide-prone areas. The grade on the new alignment was reduced from 2.2% to 1.56% from Scenic to the East Portal where it drops down the 2.2% grade a couple of miles where it rejoins the original route at West Berne. The addition of overhead catenary allowed for electric locomotive operations to pull trains through the new bore. The electric operation lasted until 1956 where powerful fans were added to the tunnel to allow diesel locomotive operations.

Today, the BNSF enjoys operations over Stevens Pass that are relatively free of weather hazards other than an occasion need to use snow regulators or once every few years a snow dozer to operate over the line. This is a very busy rail line that sees the bulk of intermodal to and from the ports of Seattle and Tacoma as well as empty bulk traffic as well as a daily Amtrak Empire Builder. The continued success and importance of this rail line is a direct result in the decision of the Great Northern Railroad 88 years ago to build under, rather than over the mountain.

Martin Burwash video walking tour of the Wellington site on YouTube

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