Trains are running regularly now on the newly realigned Geiger Spur rail line on the West Plains, and businesses that depend on the line say they're relieved the connection will be available long term for receiving and shipping freight.
The Geiger Spur currently serves five industrial manufacturers who together employ 400 people. With a combined annual payroll of $11 million, that employment translates into a $66 million economic impact to the region, Spokane County has estimated.
"We are so convinced it's necessary to have service on this spur, and not just for us," says Dan Weaver, purchasing manager for Airway Heights-based Metals Fabrication Co., which depends on the spur to get the steel it needs.
Along with the West Plains' low-cost land and the Spokane area's good labor pool, the rail spur is one of the key factors that allows Metals Fabrication to be competitive with other steel fabricators, Weaver says.
"For the last five years, there was no guarantee we'd have service" on the spur, Weaver says.
"Now," says Tim Mathison, the company's operations manager, "it looks like we will be able to count on rail service for a long time. It's pretty exciting to have this thing done."
The realignment of the Geiger Spur rail line was done to preserve and create jobs on the West Plains and to ease security concerns at Fairchild Air Force Base.
Before the realignment, the spur ran from the BNSF Railway Co. line just north of Fairchild, to the east just inside the northern edge of the base, then turned south and ran along the base's eastern boundary as far south as McFarlane Road. From there, the line ran east once again, as it still does, along McFarlane before ending at Hayford Road.
In 2004, BNSF planned to abandon the spur, which would have meant the loss of several hundred jobs, but instead, donated the line to Spokane County in October of that year. Meanwhile, military officials wanted the line moved off the base for security reasons, and pulling up that portion of the tracks would have disconnected the spur from the BNSF line to the north.
To solve the dilemma, county and state officials developed a plan to close the part of the spur that ran through Fairchild and connected with the BNSF line to the north and construct a new section that would instead run to the south and connect with the Palouse River-Coulee City (PRCC) rail line near Medical Lake. The PRCC line connects up with a BNSF main line near Cheney.
That $6.8 million project was funded by the state. The work began last June and the newly realigned spur became operational in January. It parallels Fairchild's eastern boundary from McFarlane about 3.5 miles south to the PRCC line, says Chad Coles, assistant county engineer.
The track work was done by H&H Engineering Construction Inc., of Stockton, Calif., and HDR Engineering Inc., of Spokane, designed the project, Coles says.
Andrew Wood, deputy rail and marine director for the Washington state Department of Transportation, says the project was completed on time and on budget, and was vital to preserve rail service to the Airway Heights area.
"It's very important that people stay rail connected," he says.
Metals Fabrication, located at the east end of the spur at 2524 S. Hayford, employs about 80 people and ships 95 percent of the steel it fabricates to projects outside Eastern Washington, which means the company could just as well be located elsewhere, says Weaver. Its outgoing shipments go by truck, he says.
"I want to thank Spokane County for sticking with this project," he says.
Adds Mathison, "The jobs here wouldn't be here without this spur."
Next, the abandoned part of the spur that runs inside the air base will be pulled up, and the land will be re-contoured to make it look as if the line was never there, Coles says. He says that work should begin in late summer, possibly September.
Although the Geiger Spur originally was built to serve Fairchild, it eventually became a security concern because several gates on the base needed to be opened and closed every time a train came through, he says.
The county has contracted with J-U-B Engineers Inc., of Spokane, to do environmental soil sampling and testing along the stretch of track planned for removal to test for contamination from years of train activity, Cole says.
The spur now is operated by Eastern Washington Gateway Railroad Co., which was formed to operate the state-owned "CW Branch" of the PRCC, says John Howell, president and general manager of the Des Plaines, Ill.-based Eastern Washington Gateway. The CW Branch runs between Coulee City and Cheney, Howell says.
The company took over operation of the spur in November, from Western Rail Switching Inc., an affiliate of Western Rail Inc., of Airway Heights, which had operated the spur for five years. Western Rail sells and leases used locomotives, and uses the spur to move about 50 to 60 rail cars a year, says Todd Havens, Western Rail's president.
Coles says of the new spur operator, "By all the feedback that I have had with the shippers on the line, they are doing an excellent job of customer service." Eastern Washington Gateway is paid by the shippers on a per-car charge, he says.
Havens says Eastern Washington Gateway "has given us really good service."
He says operation of the spur is much more streamlined now that it doesn't cut through Fairchild. "That will save them a lot of money," he says.
Another planned enhancement envisioned for the spur is a transload and logistics facility, which would transfer freight between trucks and railcars. That project, however, is on hold for lack of funding, say Wood and Coles.
So far, $160,000 has been spent to study suitable sites for the facility and to do environmental assessments, but another $700,000 will be needed to buy property for the project, and the facility likely will cost about $3 million to build, says Wood.
Given the state's current budget woes, even money for buying the land likely won't be available for a while, perhaps another 10 years, says Wood.
Says Coles, "We're kind of in a standstill until more funding is available."
He also says that it hasn't been established who would operate the planned facility. Two possible locations have been considered, but no decision about the location has been made.
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