The Builder departs Seattle around 4pm, but as this was close enough to the summer solstice I stood to have usable light until about 9pm which if the train kept to schedule would have my taking photos all the way to Wenatchee, WA. Interestingly enough this would coincide with the entire length of the BNSF Scenic Subdivision, which begins just north of King Street Station, heads up to Everett then makes a right hand turn to head over the Cascade Range before entering the Columbia River valley at Wenatchee. Of course as this is Superliner equipment a reverse view railfan window was included in the price of the ticket so I am able to both report and show you that the the Scenic Sub isn't just named for some small town in the mountains.
The former Great Northern Railway line between Seattle and Everett the line is mostly double track and serves the Sounder commuter rail and Cascades Amtrak service in additional to the Builder. However past Evererr the line is your typical western style single track with passing sidings. While everything is CTC nowadays you still have that old Train Order feel as the only break from the constructed single track RoW are the occasional restricted speed passing points. Not at all like single tracking in the east where one can easily see where the second or third mains were lifted after manufacturing collapsed.
The highlight of the trip is of course the world famous Cascade Tunnel, longest in the United States at 7.8 miles. Now the route two and from the tunnel isn't quite as epic as other mountain climbs like the PRR Horseshoe Curve or some of the continental divide routes, but most of that is because of the dense temperate rain forest that closely surrounds the tracks and generally blocks any sense of scale, as well as the single track RoW, which almost by definition cannot be considered "epic".
Of course a major downside to the combination of a railfan window, 5 hour trip and a DSLR camera is that you wind up with a dizzying amount of photos to process, even weeding out all of the unfocused and duplicates. You can view the entire set of ~400 photos in roughly chronological order by clicking this link here. If you get lost you can tun to page 41 in the BNSF Northwest Div timetable.
We begin on the banks of the Puget Sound on the double track portion of the line. For much of the route to Everett the tracks are right up against the water providing views like these. In the foreground is a BNSF Approach Permanent Speed Restriction sign with three speeds for freight, passenger and Talgo. The payoff for those cramped low floor coaches with inflexible articulation is a whopping 5mph over regular passenger train speeds.
Between CP-16 and CP-18 in Edmonds, WA the line was single tracked back in the day to simplify the grade crossing arrangements. However the bottleneck is now set for removal and the trackbed for the restored second track has been graded out. The Edmonds station was designed with this restored second track in mind with a temporary platform extension.
Running reverse on track #1 my train began to overtake a BNSF unit grain train on the banks of Puget Sound.
That train was being lead by C44-9W #5355.
He was following another merchandise train lead by ATSF Warbonnet C40-8W #702.
There was another single track bottleneck beginning at CP-28 in Everett which was in the process of being eliminated, however it was time for my first trip to the dining car for a lovely fresh cooked salmon dinner. As Amtrak's premier train, the Empire Builder was not subjected to the same sort of airline food now being served on Amtrak's other services. While eating I managed to catch CVN-72, the USS Abraham Lincoln, at Naval Base Everett. One can say that Nimitz class carriers are the Superliners of naval ships.
From the side window in the dining car one could see some very pretty, yet invasive, Scotch Brush, and the still snow covered peaks of the Cascade Range, far in the distance.
At this point our train began its climb to the Cascade summit by using the Skykomish River Valley passing throw towns like Index and the shadow of the associated Mount Index.
Just north of there we passed over the Sunset Falls.
On the single track system you have line segments broken up by stations which include a (usually) restricted speed passing siding, MoW/setout tracks and some sort of fixed station infrastructure with simple repair equipment for broken couplers and air hoses. Here we catch BNSF C40-8W #4355 sitting in the Baring siding.
Here the Skykomish river runs just a few feel from the main line.
The next major location on the line is the town of Skykomish, WA. This was the western terminus of the Cascade Tunnel electrification district which operated from 1929 to 1957 de to the inability of steam locomotives to operate in the 8 mile long bore. Today the yard serves as a helper base for those trains that need it. Here we see the Skykomish yard office.
Here we see the old Skykomish station which also served as a block and train order office. Before direct dispatcher control the operator at Skykomish controlled either end of the local siding and has a CTC display of the line in either direction.
Skykomish is also the home base for the division snow plow which is called out when nature decides to drop a load on the western slope.
Pressing on the line has a rather long horseshoe curve, but due to the dense forest you can't see the curve for the trees. The one inkling one can get of the curve is at the Milepost 1728 bridge at its apex.
While the original Great Northern signals were replaced some time ago, some of the more remote locations still retain their charm, although that is being eroded by what I assume are PTC related additions.
The line also hosts some rather substantial slide fence infrastructure.
Bridge at Milepost 1721. For those that don't know the Cascade range causes the moist pacific air to dump all of its water out on the west slope creating what is literally a rain forest type climate.
Scenic is both an adjective and a noun as it is what this Subdivision is and the name of its highest point. Here we see the Scenic siding just a few hundred feet west of the western portal of the Cascade tunnel. The tunnel was the second iteration of a tunnel under the Steven's Pass, the first of which suffered the Wellington Train Disaster where a snowed-in passenger train was wiped out by an avalanche on the higher elevation tunnel route killing 96 people in 1910. The new route cut nearly 9 miles off the trip and also lowered the peak elevation and ruling grades. Here we can see both the westbound Scenic siding signal as well as the eastbound home signal protecting the Cascade tunnel.
Once you enter the Cascade Tunnel there really isn't much to see. Speed for all trains in the tunnel is 25 mph and the darkness is only broken up by the lit safety refuges located every quarter mile. If the 8 mile long 25mph section isn't bad enough, the ventilation system can only handle one train at a time, making in effect a single 8 mile absolute block. Moreover the vent fans have to run up to 20 minutes after each eastbound train passes to fully clear the exhaust from the bore. Here is a video taken of the final quarter mile in the tunnel showing safety refuge #1. As you approach the mouth the roar of the squirrel cage vent fans increase to a roar.
Discussion of the Cascade Tunnel would not be complete without mention of the door. Even with the comparatively lower exhaust profile of diesel locomotives, you just simply cannot run them throw an 8 mile tunnel without some thought to getting the exhaust gases out. The solution to removing the costly 11Kv 25Hz electrification was a pair of 800hp vent fans at the eastern portal. To make sure that the air would simply not just rush out the nearest opening an automatic door is covers the eastern portal to force the airflow through to the west side. When a train enters the tunnel from the west the door is closed and the fans started. The door remains closed until the train reaches a point roughly one quarter mile from the eastern portal at which point it automatically opens. The door is not linked with the signaling system as if the door fails to open it is not likely that the train will be able to stop in the 1400 feet or so provided. Therefore the train will simply hit the door. A backup door is provided in case of this occurrence, which has only happened once since 1957. Here is a Youtube video of the door in operation.
Here we see a closeup view of the ease portal of the tunnel. Note the elevation is only 2,800 feet, only 600 more than the Allegheny summits back east.
Wider view of the tunnel portal showing the vent plant to the left. Because of the slow speed, 8 mile long block and post-train ventilation procedures the Cascade Tunnel limits traffic on the line to about 28 trains a day.
Building something on the order of 35 737NGs per month means that Boeing needs a constant supply of fuselages from Wichita. Here another three are on the move west behing a three pack of BNSF C40-xWs parked on the Berne siding waiting for us to pass.
Here we see Great Northern Tunnel 14.7 which was built in 1949 as part of a realignment project and opens out onto a long viaduct over the Nason Creek.
Milepost 1692 siding and station at Merritt.
In conjunction with the Cascade Tunnel, the Great Northern Railway also opened the Chumstick Cutoff from the confied Tumwater Canyon over to the adjacent Chumstick Canyon. This involved a set of three tunnels to cross the ridge line separating the two creeks. They are from west to east the Winton Tunnel, Swede Tunnel and Chumstick Tunnel.
Heading down the eastern slope one can see the dramatic change in climate as with all the moisture having been pulled out things get much more arid with a ponderosa-type pine forest.
The big refrigerated warehouses indicated that we are not in apple country.
Visual representation of the Cascade Range blocking the moisture coming off the Pacific Ocean.
Heading west in the Wenatchee River Valley.
Great Northern station in Cashmere, WA.
Sky and orchards in Monitor, WA.
We finally get some old school signaling as we pull through downtown Wenatchee, WA. Were back to two main tracks, each equipped with bi-directional ABS type signaling, instead of CTC. They even still had the pole lines in service!
Amtrak Train 8 making its on-top stop at the Wenatchee Station. To the left is the Cascadian fruit warehouse. Local time is something on or after 9pm. One of the payoffs for scheduling a train trip on one of the longest days of the year.
Wenatchee is a smoking stop which allows one the opportunity to get out and stretch one's feet. Here is an external view of my railfan perch with a local railfan who regularly makes the trip between Seattle and Spokane for business related needs.
Road power in Wenatchee Yard including C44-9W #4331.
With the light fading fast it was time to relinquish my post at the rear of the train and head to bed as we passed the east end of the Wenatchee Yard. I was going to have an early start the next morning getting material for the next part of the trip as we cross the continental divide and Big Sky Country.
I normally would leave things here, but I discovered a 4-part YouTube piece that documents the Great Northern Cascade Division between 1957 and 1971 with 8mm home movies taken by the son of the agent/operator at the Skykomish station. The sound track included dispatcher to train communications recorded at the time on reel to reel tape.