Railroads remain a critical part of the economy here, not just for transporting passengers but also for moving freight.

As every Washington schoolchild should know, in 1873 the Northern Pacific selected Tacoma to be the western terminus of the nation’s second transcontinental railroad.

This shocked and enraged Seattle boosters, who set about luring their own railroad, although they had to suffer several years of a pitiful spur line from the City of Destiny.

It wasn’t just a civic indignity. It threatened to throttle Seattle’s dreams of becoming a great center of commerce.

Now about the only time many around Puget Sound hear about railroads is from the controversy about more coal trains. It’s an important debate. But it risks ignoring that railroads remain a critical part of the economy here, not just for transporting passengers but also for moving freight.

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Today’s freight railroads are gigantic systems backed by advanced technology. More often than not, they are better for the environment than highways and are an essential hedge against climate change.

That wasn’t a concern when the railroad builders of the 19th century gazed northwest. They saw a region rich with timber, minerals, fisheries, trade from “the Orient,” and rich land for farming and settlement.

Especially beginning with the Lincoln administration, linking this continental nation with railroads became a paramount government objective. Thus the Northern Pacific was granted 40 million acres. Among other things, the land was used to raise capital to build the line. That this land was taken from native tribes didn’t concern most Americans.

The building of the West’s railroads was full of grand ambition, engineering feats unlike anything the world had seen, track laid by hand often by Chinese laborers, and spectacular financial skulduggery and collapses. Listen to Gordon Lightfoot’s “Canadian Railroad Trilogy,” imagine it in the states, and you get the idea.

By the early 20th century, four transcontinental lines had been built to Puget Sound: The Northern Pacific, Great Northern, Union Pacific (arriving mostly via negotiated trackage rights on the NP) and the Pacific Extension of the Milwaukee Road. This latter company had the misfortune of being completed just before the Panama Canal was opened, taking away much growth in traffic.

Even so, these lines were essential to the region’s development. In the heyday of luxurious passenger trains on individual railroads, Seattle hosted some of the most famous: The Empire Builder of the Great Northern, North Coast Limited on the Northern Pacific and Olympian Hiawatha on the Milwaukee Road.

They also left behind monuments such as union stations and Seattle’s King Street Station, which has been restored to its original beauty and serves Amtrak, the popular Amtrak Cascades regional trains, and Sounder commuter service.

A bust of James J. Hill, the Great Northern founder nicknamed the Empire Builder, sits atop a plinth on the
University of Washington campus.

For decades, railroads struggled over high regulation and taxes while government built roads, interstate highways and airports. The game changed with the 1980 Staggers Act, which deregulated the rail industry.

Government also allowed for more mergers, leaving the nation with four giant rail systems, two of which operate in Washington, the BNSF and UP.

To be sure, many other railroads are around, from the plucky and sizable Kansas City Southern to many short lines such as the tiny Ballard Terminal Railroad.

Staggers was smart deregulation that succeeded, with a minimum of bad unintended consequences. As a result, railroads have enjoyed a renaissance.

Innovation has been considerable, producing, for example, much cleaner and more fuel-efficient locomotives.

Railroads have enjoyed favor on Wall Street, especially since Warren Buffett bought the Burlington Northern Santa Fe — which includes the old NP and GN — for $26.5 billion in 2010.

”The railroad is not just still here, it’s growing,” said Gus Melonas, a spokesman for BNSF Railway, by far the largest rail presence in the state, operating 1,500 miles of lines and employing 3,500.

The company is investing $125 million in upgrades in Washington this year and plans to hire 300 here. Throughout the BNSF system, about $4.3 billion is being spent this year to improve track and buy new equipment, up from $3.6 billion spent in 2012.

According to the American Association of Railroads, 23 railroads operate in Washington. Most are short lines.

Rail moves almost any kind of cargo you can imagine. For BNSF, that includes Boeing fuselages and elephants for Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey’s Circus.

The lines constitute a vital link in the intermodal system of world trade, where containers are moved from ships to trains to trucks.

Railroads also have contracts with major trucking companies to move trailers long distances on fast schedules. BNSF’s Seattle International Gateway is a major intermodal yard.

Being such big freight movers, it’s natural that railroads would be caught up in the debate over coal, as well as moving oil by train as the fracking boom takes off.

The runaway train on a short line in Quebec that exploded in a village, killing 47 in July, is a reminder than railroading is serious business. It now appears the oil in the railcars was mislabeled and was as explosive as gasoline.

The tragedy will provoke examination and new rules, perhaps a new tanker-car design. But with the fracking boom in out-of-the-way places, rail will still be essential for moving oil. U.S. railroads generally have the best safety records in their history.

As for more coal through the Northwest to Asia, you know my view from a column last year: short-term profit but long-term costs to the planet.

Beyond this important debate, modern railroads will continue to be an important part of our future.

You may reach Jon Talton at jtalton@seattletimes.com