Moving the train
Operating the dinner train on any main line was out of the question. There was only one branch line in the Seattle area that offered everything the dinner train would need to be a success. Mr. Temple needed a branch line that was long enough to allow at least a three-hour long trip. A branch line that had an existing depot that could serve as a loading platform and ticket sales, was centrally located for easy access, and a line that offered picturesque views the passengers would enjoy; but most importantly a branch line that had some unique feature that would draw customers, the “wow factor”. Burlington Northern’s Woodinville Subdivision that ran along the east side of Lake Washington offered all of that.
The Woodinville Subdivision, which ran from Renton to Woodinville and into Snohomish, was long enough for the trip to last three hours. The old Pacific Coast Railroad depot in Renton was the perfect spot for ticket sales and passenger loading, and it had a siding where the train could be stored. The most important aspect of the Woodinville Subdivision was the destination—the Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery in Woodinville where passengers would detrain and be treated to a tour of the winery, and of course wine tasting. Dessert would once again be served on the return trip.
After only three years in Eastern Washington, the last dinner train operated out of Yakima on Saturday April 4, 1992. This last trip had been sold out for months. On April 26th, the train dead-headed to Renton via Pasco and Vancouver (Stampede Pass was still closed at the time). The first trip on the Woodinville Subdivision was on April 29th for the local press. Sunday May 3rd an “inaugural run” was done for local dignitaries, then on Tuesday May 5, 1992, regular service began.
The train started out with two GP9s (WCRC #301 and #302) for motive power. WCRC modified the paint scheme on GP9 #301 & #302 by removing the Seahawk logo, and removing “Washington Central” and replacing it with “Spirit of Washington”. An F7B, WCRC #107, was added to the train as a power car to provide electricity.
All of the cars were renamed, the “Prosser” was now “Chateau Ste. Michelle”, the “Kennewick” was now “Columbia River”, the “Yakima” was now “Cascade”, the “Spirit of Washington” was now “City of Seattle”, and the “Ellensburg” was now “Olympic”. The “Mt. Rainier” stayed the same.
The train made a dinner trip Tuesday through Friday, a lunch and dinner trip on Saturdays, and a brunch and dinner run on Sundays. The train would stop at MP 22.3 in Woodinville where the passengers would detrain for the winery. The train would then head north to Woodinville proper where it would go around the wye and wait. Once back at Renton the power would simply run around the train. This meant that on every other trip, the train set would run in a backwards position with the power next to the round end car. This arrangement did not sit well with railfans wanting to take a photo of a perfect looking train, nor with passengers who reserved seats in the round end observation car thinking they were going to have a great view out the rear of the train only to see a locomotive the entire trip.
The train was an instant success, trips were near capacity. Weekday trips would have open spots, sometimes one car was completed sealed off, but the weekend trips however were a different story. The train was sold out weeks in advance.
Just six months after starting up in the Puget Sound market, the dinner train got a seventh car (the third dome car) in November 1992. The restoration of the ex-Milwaukee Road Super Dome, ex-Alaska Princess Tours, was completed and was finally ready to be added to the train. It was numbered WCRC #108 and named “City of Renton”.
September 1996 was a rough month for the dinner train. On September fifth, the train was headed south through Kirkland when F7A #102 caught fire when the cooling system became clogged. The train stopped in Bellevue, the Bellevue FD put the fire out. Passengers were bussed to Renton. The BN Maltby Turn pulled the train back to Renton the next day to clear the line. A Burlington Northern GP9 filled in; the 102 was only out of service about four days. Then on the 14th the rear car on the train split a switch while going around the wye in Woodinville. Passengers had to be bused home with no dessert.
The most memorable trip happened in October 1997 when a highly intoxicated man was spotting running down the tracks in Kirkland. The only thing he was wearing was socks, he climbed aboard the engine and wanted a ride; the train stopped in Bellevue where police took him into custody.
Starting on January 1, 1994, the dinner train no longer stopped at the Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery, the train now stopped at the Columbia Winery in Woodinville. The Columbia Winery was located on the north side of NE 145th Avenue (SR 202) right across the road from the Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery. This change made the trip slightly longer. Instead of detraining at MP 22.3 on the Woodinville Subdivision, the train now continued north to Woodinville proper, where the train went around the wye and headed down the Issaquah Spur for two miles to the winery. The train spend 45 minutes at the winery. On the return trip, the train backed up the spur to Woodinville proper, and then proceeded south to Renton.
The power changed a few times over the years. In October 1996, the WCRC purchase two F9PHs that became WCRC #82 and #84 for the dinner train; these new locomotives would power the train right up to its final run. Even though the units were HEP equipped, the train still used a power car for electricity.
In December 1998, the dinner train went to a “pull-pull” configuration. This means a locomotive was placed at each end of the train so it could be pulled in either direction. This was done to save time by eliminating the need to run-around the wye at Woodinville. The west side of the wye had not seen a train in years, and the rails were not in very good condition to handle passenger cars. This also saved time by eliminating the run-around once back in Renton. The #82 and the power car were on the south end of the train. The #84 was positioned on the north end coupled to the round-end car “Olympic”.
The Spirit of Washington dinner train was popular, it carried 100,000 riders each year, provided many local jobs and made charible donations to local non-profit groups. Everyone assumed it would be around for ever—but nothing lasts forever. In 2006, a major freeway project to widen the southbound lanes of I-405 between Bellevue and I-90 required the Woodinville Subdivision to be taken out. The southbound lanes of I-405 went through a tunnel with the Woodinville Subdivision on top. The 3-lane wide tunnel needed to be removed to make way for the new, 4-lanes with 2 HOV lanes. BNSF was not going to pay for a new bridge across the interstate for a branch line that they didn’t want any more. Local politicians wanted the rail line gone and persuaded WSDOT not to put the track back in place.
So, the Woodinville Subdivision would be cut in two. The dinner train would not be able to continue to run, starting the trip in Bellevue would not be long enough, time wise, to serve dinner before arriving at the winery. The contract between the WCRC and the BNSF was set to expired at midnight on July 31, 2007 anyway and BNSF did not want to renew it. The dinner train had to find a new home.
When 2007 started, it was well known throughout the Puget Sound region that the end was near for the Spirit of Washington dinner train. Trips began to sell out months in advance. On July 31, 2007, the Spirit of Washington dinner train made its final run over the Woodinville Subdivision. It was an emotional trip for the crew, the staff, and the passengers on board. Well before the stroke of midnight, the train had left Renton and headed down to Tacoma where it would begin a new chapter in its career.
A New Chapter in Tacoma
On August 3, 2007, the Spirit of Washington Dinner Train made its first trip out of Tacoma over the Tacoma Rail line (ex-Milwaukee Road) to Lake Kapowsin. Tacoma Rail is owned by the City of Tacoma and operated by the Port of Tacoma. Tacoma was excited to be the new home for the dinner train and did everything it could to make the train a success. The train was not a success.
Ticket sales were down; the trip did not have that “wow factor” for the passengers. Years before when the train operated to Ellensburg, passengers could detrain for few minutes, but now passengers were not even allowed to get off at the turn-around point. Long lines formed at the restrooms during the wait to go back; it was not pleasant for the passengers.
Just like before, when it got dark early there was absolutely nothing to see out the windows. The beautiful views of the Seattle skyline all lit up and the Space Needle at sunset across the waters of Lake Washington had been replaced with disgusting graffiti painted along the retaining walls outside of Tacoma. The other setback was the steep 3% grade out of Tacoma required a third locomotive, which increased fuel cost.
On October 29, 2007, the Spirit of Washington Dinner Train was done—this time for good. The trainset was taken south to Vancouver and stored near Battle Ground on a branch lined owned by the Temple family. Soon the neighbors grew tired of seeing passenger cars out their windows and demanded that the train leave.
In May 2008, the trainset was moved to Pasco, from there the F9PHs were taken to Yakima and the passenger cars were taken to Moses Lake. In July 2010 the entire trainset, locomotives included, were put up for sale for $1.5 million. The Texas State Railroad was interested in purchasing the train for their American Heritage Railways. The train eventually ended up in Watsonville, CA where it is (or was) used on the Santa Cruz and Monterey Bay Railway.
Now that the train has been sold, and tracks have been pulled up in Woodinville, the dream of having the train return to the Woodinville Subdivision, possibly running between Snohomish and Woodinville will always be that, just a dream.