One of last great Washington train rides coming to an end

TACOMA, Wash.  — For more than a century, train passengers have traveled along Tacoma's waterfront and through the Tacoma Narrows.

Those roughly 20 miles of track are the only expansive waterfront section of Amtrak's Pacific Coast route between Seattle and Pismo Beach, California.

On Dec. 18, that all will come to an end. The next day a new route parallel to Interstate 5 will open, along with a new Tacoma Amtrak station.

The looming deadline is causing a rush of passengers who want to see the South Sound from the train one last time.

"Our numbers are doubling now," conductor Pete Evans said Thursday. "People want to see the Sound."

Drew Mitchem boarded the Cascades train in Centralia. He disembarked in Tacoma and caught the first train back to Centralia.

He was riding the train strictly for the views.

"It's beautiful," he said. "You get the Olympics, especially if there's no fog out. It's something you don't get to see along the freeway."

Some riders are taking the train for the first time.

"I'm a native," said Carolyn Burreson, who boarded the Cascades in Olympia with her husband, Bob. "I've lived here all my life and never taken a train."

Outside, the twin Tacoma Narrows bridges passed overhead.

"Wow," Burreson said. "I've never seen the bridge like that."

In the water, a cormorant, its outstretched wings drying in the sun, rode a drifting log.

Bob Knudson and his daughter Kristine also boarded in Olympia. He volunteers at the Olympia train station but had never rode the rails north until Thursday.

The Knudsons were planning on turning around as soon as they got to Tacoma.

Like the Burresons, they wanted to see the views. In the far distance, the snowy Olympic mountains were breaking through a fog bank.

"This section of track is disappearing for passengers," Bob Knudson said.

Tacoma passengers can make a short day trip on the route by catching the Coast Starlight at 10:21 a.m. and arriving at Centralia's historic train station at 11:35 a.m.

There, passengers can have lunch at McMenamins Olympic Club Hotel, look around downtown Centralia and then catch the Cascades 504 at 1:31 p.m., returning to Tacoma at 2:34 p.m.

All for $32 roundtrip (lunch not included.)

The Point Defiance route opened in 1914. It was used by Northern Pacific and Union Pacific railroads and in 1943 by Great Northern Railway.

Today, it's used by BNSF Railway to move freight trains, by Amtrak to run its Coast Starlight from Seattle to Los Angeles and by the state to operate its Cascades trains from Seattle to Eugene.

On Dec. 18, the route will become freight only.

Its replacement, the $181 million Point Defiance Bypass project, has been underway since 2010.

Trains will roll south from Freighthouse Square in Tacoma along the route Sound Transit uses for its Sounder commuter rail service to Lakewood. From there, Amtrak trains will continue south through Joint Base Lewis-McChord and Dupont, paralleling I-5.

Just south of Mounts Road, the tracks cross I-5 and rejoin the previous route on the edge of Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge.

The change will reduce the trip by 10 minutes. But the time saved could be far greater. Passenger trains often must stop or slow along the Point Defiance route to wait for a freight train to clear the single track tunnel at Ruston.

Sometimes, views are obscured by a parked freight train. Sometimes, they're in your face. A ship moored Thursday at the Temco grain elevator on Schuster Parkway had a banner reading "Indian Solidarity" tied below its bridge.

"I'd rather keep the views and lose the minutes," Tony Heathcoat of Kelso said of the coming change. He was on the Cascades on Thursday, returning from a medical appointment in Seattle.

But sometimes those minutes can add up.

The train was an hour late Wednesday on Heathcoat's trip north. He said the train sat for 25 minutes just south of Tacoma.

"We had to wait for three trains to pass," he said.

The new route south of Freighthouse Square will be nearly passenger train-only until it reconnects with the main BNSF line at Nisqually. The occasional local freight train will use the new route.

The lack of capacity on the Point Defiance route has stymied the state Department of Transportation from adding passenger service.

But on Dec. 18, with the opening of the bypass, two Cascades round trips between Seattle and Portland will be added. A total of 12 trains will make the trip daily.

The Transportation Department, which runs the Cascades in conjunction with the Oregon Department of Transportation, estimates the trip between the two cities will take three hours and 20 minutes.

Trains are being tested on the new route. Amtrak trains will travel up to 79 miles per hour on the route. The Transportation Department is concerned that some drivers and pedestrians might not be accustomed to the high speeds. Or even the new route.

Some passengers on Thursday's train were unaware of the coming change.

Kim Chase of Centralia was returning home from Tacoma.

"One of the reasons I take the train is to have this view," Chase said as a bald eagle lifted off from a track side tree. "It's a nice change from the regular I-5 drive. It's a kind of a treat for me."

She said she was disappointed to hear she was seeing the views for the last time from the train.

"This is the Northwest at its best," she said.