A small section of track, 1.7 miles to be exact, might separate the Columbia Walla Walla Railroad from survival.
It isn’t even part of CWW’s territory, which is a Port of Columbia-owned line that stretches 67 miles from Dayton to Wallula and ends within eyesight of the Columbia River.
The final segment of track is the property of railroad giant Union Pacific.
Without those last 1.7 miles of rail, which would allow Northwest Grain Growers to resume transporting about 1,000 carloads of locally produced wheat each year to its shipping facility at Port Wallula, the Columbia Walla Walla Railroad has been passed over in favor of trucks.
The owner and operators of Columbia Rail (formerly Frontier Rail), a Walla Walla-based company managing CWW for the Port in Columbia County, have heard talk of shutting down their local short line, and they’re worried.
The Columbia Walla Walla Railway, which also includes a section dipping south to Weston, Oregon, dates to 1875. It was the first line-haul railroad line in the Northwest, allowing for the transport of passengers or freight.
“There’s some members of the public that are urging the Port, ‘Hey, let’s decommission this railroad, and let’s take a hard look at if it makes sense’ — that sort of thing,” Columbia Rail owner Paul Didelius said.
“The Port has, and the community up there has, various concerns for the Port-owned railroad. We’ve indicated to them in meetings that we are continuing our efforts, which go back to 2019, to get the railroad moving grain again. It’s kind of as simple as that.”
But gaining access to the final 1.7 miles has been anything but simple.
Union Pacific, a national establishment and the nation’s second-largest railroad covering more than 32,000 miles across 23 states, owned the Columbia Walla Walla shortline for almost a century before donating it to the Port of Columbia in 1996.
But the 1.7 miles from Wallula Junction to the Northwest Grain Growers facility was ruled off-limits to Columbia Rail when it took over CWW operations.
UP did not reply when contacted for comment.
“The previous railroad operator in the Walla Walla region, they had a legal right to operate on the Union Pacific track there for that final mile from basically the Wallula Junction to get to that river facility,” Didelius said. “That access to Wallula Junction was supposed to come with the lease.
“Here we are, two and a half years into it, and we’re still not into the Wallula Junction.”
This leaves the Port and Columbia Rail in a predicament.
There’s been an increase in the number of customers shipping products via CWW, according to Didelius, but the volume of cargo is significantly down without the large grain cooperative’s participation.
Chris Peha, the CEO of Northwest Grain Growers, contends local farmers were forced to stop using the rail line.
“With everything that is rate driven, they are interested in how they can get their product to the market the most cost-effective way possible,” Peha said.
“Because the rail rate to go all the way to the coast isn’t competitive, we haven’t done that for a long time. And because we lost the rail-to-barge move here a couple years ago because of UP, we’ve had to find the next competitive thing, which is to truck the grain.”
Northwest Grain Growers would rather resume moving its 1,000 carloads of wheat on the Columbia Walla Walla Railroad, as it had been doing for more than 20 years.
But even with the co-op lobbying Union Pacific on behalf of Columbia Rail, the small section of track remains off-limits.
“We don’t want one mode of transportation,” Peha said. “Competition in that market is good because it keeps rates down. We want to keep the rail service available so we have another option.”
But the structure of the industry works against Columbia Rail.
Where as highways are open to any truck driver with a license, almost all railroads are property of the companies that built them.
“We can get a carload of grain from, say Prescott, 50 miles to Wallula, or (from) Milton-Freewater 40 miles to Wallula,” Didelius said. “And we can see the elevator, but we just can’t get there because it’s on someone else’s railroad.”
A resolution over access to Wallula Junction is entirely up to UP, meaning it could happen anytime — even years from now — or never.
In the meantime, Columbia Rail’s owner refuses to give up.
They’ve been exploring other ways to resume shipping grain.
“We’re moving forward on a parallel pass: to either exact from Union Pacific some commercial rights that they indicated we would be provided by their company, or if we’re unsuccessful at that, to request federal funds to build our own railroad into that facility,” Didelius said.
“Either one works. The commercial situation with Union Pacific would be a lot faster than some rail line that would take years to fund and build.”
Though some past customers have turned to trucking, Columbia Rail assistant general manager Derek Reid points out several advantages with locomotives.
“Trucking capacity has its ebbs and flows, and a lot of time people have trouble getting trucks,” Reid said.
“Moving by rail is better for greenhouse gas emissions. Rail has its benefits. There’s no doubt about it. Trucking definitely has its setbacks, so we’re just trying to keep the rail going.
“It’s cost-effective and better for the environment at the same time. Trucks do a lot of damage to the roads and highways that the community needs to use. It costs taxpayers money to fix those highways and roads. There’s a lot to it, and I think rail is honestly the way to go.”