Port hires Walla Walla company to manage Richland railroad

The Port of Benton has hired Columbia Rail to manage the 16-mile railroad that serves businesses at Horn Rapids, a critical first step to repairing decades of deterioration that reduced train speeds to 5 mph.

Walla Walla-based Columbia operates short line railroads throughout the Mid-Columbia. It will operate and maintain the line the port calls the Southern Connection Rail Line through Richland.

The port commission approved the innovative, 24-month agreement in January. Columbia will pay $13,000 a month for the use of the line and a locomotive repair facility while the port will repay the money in the form of maintenance. It is essentially working for free.

The port plans to begin seeking a long-term operator later this year.

Columbia will pay $13,000 a month for the rights to the track, while the port will return the money to cover operations costs. The port continues to seek state and federal grants to fund the wholesale upgrades to ties, signals and other equipment.

The port plans to improve the tracks enough to raise train speeds to 10 mph in the immediate future and eventually to restore the historic 25 mph limit. It can take two hours under current track conditions for a standard train to traverse Richland.

The railroad was built in 1947 to connect the Hanford nuclear reservation with rail links in Kennewick. The port acquired it and the other assets in the 1100 area in 1998.

The port evicted its longtime operator, Tri-City Railroad Co., in 2022, citing a decade of disputes over track conditions and access to information.

The Columbia contract includes detailed requirements for maintenance and requires it to share inspection reports and information about rail traffic with the port.

BNSF Railway and Union Pacific both use the track to access customers in the Horn Rapids area.

The port notes Columbia began assessing the tracks prior to the contract and has committed to getting several port-owned locomotives operational. A port official jokingly called the idle engines “very large paperweights.”

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