by John Adams
Our twice-postponed Vancouver, Washington, convention actually started the day before the official convention with the Board touring the Pacific Northwest Railroad Archive (PRNA). We were quite impressed with their hospitality and the process they are pursuing to index and copy the wealth of material in their collection. Their goal is to make their collection available on the internet and they have a well organized plan to accomplish this. Collaboration with the PRNA may provide an opportunity to further the of the FOBNR by making our archive materials available to our membership in a very accessible form. They also opened the other part of their building to us, and we were able to see the Boeing Model Railroad Club layout. This HO layout was quite impressive, particularly since most of it was new, with only a few sections recycled from their previous location. After a quick dinner several of us headed to Burr Stewart’s HO layout for an operating session. On Wednesday morning we met at Jim Younkins’ N scale layout for another operating session. Both layouts were very well done, operated extremely well and were fun to actually operate!
We began the official convention on Wednesday afternoon with registration and a dinner at The Old Spaghetti Factory. We began with a presentation from Doug Auburg, the president of the SP&S Historical Society and a member of the Columbia Gorge Model Railroad Club. Doug gave us many pointers on where the best train watching spots were located. Randy Nelson then took over with a very professional slide show about the present BNSF as well as the BN post-merger, highlighting the days before the predecessor railroad power was repainted. Randy worked for many years as a BNSF dispatcher. They both pointed out that Vancouver was the headquarters for the SP&S and the final endpoint for the NP when they bridged the Columbia River at Kalama in 1908. Vancouver continues to be a major center for BNSF with the lines all merging at the Vancouver Depot,. Here you can see Amtrak, BNSF, UP, and Portland & Western trains. Loads come in through the Columbia Gorge line (ex SP&S), while empties go back over Stampede Pass (ex NP). Keith Ardinger then finished the evening with a slide show filled with oddities from the past as well as the history of the area after the BN merger.
Thursday’s activities began with a tour of Kalama Export terminal, a large facility for exporting grain brought in by railcar from BNSF, UP and CP, particularly unit grain trains of corn, soybeans, or wheat. Historically, corn is the largest export, although at present they are shipping more wheat. We asked our hosts about whether they had seen any changes in the demands for wheat or corn exports due to the war in Ukraine, but they said any effect would probably be delayed as they must contract with shipping months in advance. When trains arrive, they are broken in half, and 14-15 cars at a time are pulled into the two-track unloading shed. Here a hydraulic bar pushes on the truck side-frame to move them through the dumper. The grain from each car is then weighed and stored until a ship comes in for loading. Much of the grain is cleaned, and the material that is not saleable as food grade grain is loaded in trucks and sold to feed lots. Amazingly they have also found a market for their grain dust, and this is sold as well. When a ship arrives, the loading process begins, with the usual ship carrying about 50,000 tons, or 6 unit trains. The smaller ships, such as the one that was present during our tour, carry about half that amount. We watched them unload a corn train from the CP, with an air-conditioned cart running between the two lines of cars where a worker uses a stinger to open each of the unloading gates. About once a shift they clean debris off the grates. Recently a worker spotted something shiny in the grain and stopped the car stopped the car to investigate. They rescued a class ring and were actually able to find the owner. The facility employs about 60 workers and operates around the clock.
Our next event was a tour of The Port of Vancouver, which is a break-bulk (commodities that are not shipped in containers) terminal with 84% exports and 16% imports. Their biggest exports are corn, wheat, and soybeans. They recently built $85M worth of new storage silos along the 2.5 miles of waterfront they occupy. The West Vancouver Freight Access Rail Project built an underpass (the trench) where westbound trains off the BNSF can enter the port directly without blocking the north-south main line or the bridge over the Columbia River. The Port itself employs 120 workers, with total port employment around 5,000. Their tenants include a shredding business that shreds autos, freight cars and other metals. The shredded material is then shipped out, returning as steel ingots which are further refined locally. The Port also has a large coil steel manufacturer. They recently signed a 30-year lease to import Subaru autos. A large balloon track with an expansive, empty central area presently is used to store oversized items. They also transload 250’ wind turbine blades from ships onto barges bound for Lewiston, Idaho, and trucked the rest of the way to Saskatchewan. Two large mobile cranes lift the blades off the ship, move them across the ship and load them into a barge on the other side of the ship To facilitate the shipment of grains, unit trains are brought in and broken into 18-car lots and pushed through the dumper with car movers. The empties are gathered on one of four tracks to be made into trains for BNSF or UP. BNSF has the contract to switch the Port, although several tenants have their own switchers. The Port has 42 miles of track, 138 switches and a MOW crew of 8. Last year they handled over 69,000 freight cars. Without appropriate landing space, they are unable to work with any containers. The Port continues to be in a growth phase and hopes to attract new business. Due to environmental concerns, they do not handle coal nor oil, but joked that they hope to be able to sell boxed sailboat fuel.
Friday morning we met up and headed up the Columbia River Gorge, but unfortunately found MOW windows in effect on both sides of the river. After a lunch stop, the MOW window ended, and we did get to see a number of trains, first heading east to Wishram and Roosevelt (the garbage train destination), and then working back toward Vancouver. Coal, grain, and containers were moving, and we were able to get some great shots.
On Friday evening we had our membership meeting to receive member input and discuss several potential options for a convention next year. One suggestion was to send out a survey by email to see what kind of convention would encourage more people to attend, and the Board agreed to work on this project. After the membership meeting, the Board met to verify the membership vote for Board members and elect officers for the coming year. The Board also discussed issues regarding The BN Expediter, conventions, and our archives. The Board also discussed our tour of the Pacific Northwest Rail Archives in Burien, Washington, and were quite impressed not only with their ability to safely store the archives, but also to index it to be easily accessible online in the future. We decided to further investigate the possibility of sending them at least a part of our archives.
On Saturday we met again to railfan closer to home, meeting at the downtown Vancouver Amtrak station. After a few minutes we were able to watch the dispatchers sort out a problem with a movable crossing frog by backing the Portland section of the Empire Builder to the nearest crossover, and moving a UP freight through the crossing to get out of the way, as well as seeing some BNSF trains. Traffic really was busy and gave enough promise for the afternoon that several of us made a run to the local hobby shops. In the afternoon we again railfanned on our own and were able to see a good selection of trains.
Saturday evening, we met at a local restaurant for an excellent dinner of salmon or ribeye, which was followed by a presentation by Dave Sprau, a local who had worked many years as a dispatcher for the BN and BNSF. He showed a brief presentation he had given for new trainees on the railroad highlighting the history of the railroads in the Pacific Northwest. He also talked about the changes that had gone on through the several mergers, including even changing the designated railroad directions east to west and vice versa. He then answered many questions about dispatching on the railroad. We ended the convention with our auction, which had been supplemented by some donations from the PNRA and made $160 for the FOBNR.