With the national attention that yesterday’s tragic derailment is getting, we felt it would be best to provide a bit of context about the accident’s site: the Point Defiance Bypass. While it is a “new” railroad, built primarily for passenger use, the corridor is over a century old and some pieces date back decades. The bridge over Interstate 5 in particular was built in 1936 over an older highway and was given new tracks as part of the project.
On May 1, 1891, the Tacoma, Olympia & Grays Harbor Railroad announced the completion of a 25-mile railway from Lacey to Lakeview (approximately where South Tacoma station is today), forming a new branch of the Northern Pacific Railway. The main line from Lakeview to Tacoma had been built in 1873 and continued south through what is now Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM) towards Tenino. Although a parallel route was built along the coast and around Point Defiance in 1914, this inland route was sparsely used as a freight route by Northern Pacific, and later Burlington Northern to access the JBLM and South Tacoma areas.
By the 1990s, the railway was underused and caught the interest of WSDOT, who were planning what would become the Amtrak Cascades network. While Amtrak trains were using the route along the coast, the state’s 1997 Intercity Passenger Rail Plan envisioned a faster, inland route coupled with a new multimodal complex in Tacoma to link up with the Sounder and Link lines that Sound Transit planned for the city. The state legislature approved design and property acquisition funds in 2005, beginning a long series of back and forth meetings with cities, residents, the military, and other groups along the route. Sound Transit later acquired the whole corridor from BNSF in 2004.
President Obama’s 2009 stimulus package gave the bypass the boost it needed, providing much of the funding for the $181 million project and accelerating the completion date from 2019 to 2017 (a deadline mandated by the federal grant). By the following year, WSDOT was deep in environmental assessment and Sound Transit had already started moving dirt on the Lakewood to Tacoma segment. It received final approval from the Federal Railroad Administration in early 2013 and began construction in 2015, with work on the Nisqually junction completed later that year. The new station at Tacoma’s Freighthouse Square encountered a speed bump late into property acquisition negotiations, but was ultimately able to break ground in July 2016. Extensive testing on the whole corridor began in January of this year, with WSDOT and Sound Transit rolling out public service announcements about train safety. Passenger service began yesterday morning, and seemed to be going smoothly, until the train reached one of the final turns on the approach to Nisqually junction at 7:30 am. While the investigation has not determined the exact cause of the crash, early indications show that the train was traveling overspeed on a downhill section before the turn.