Rail connection between Banks and North Plains will make service more efficient

by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: DOUG BURKHARDT - Portland & Western locomotives roll through Banks at dusk after coming into the yard to reverse directions before taking a freight train toward North Plains. A new connecting track, about two-thirds of a mile long, will soon eliminate the need for trains to make the reversing move at Banks. It’s far from the scale of building the nation’s first transcontinental railroad in the 1860s, but even in 2013, every now and then crews lay down a new stretch of railroad track.

Between the communities of North Plains and Banks, the Portland & Western Railroad (P&W) plans to build a new connecting track that will make the passage of freight trains more efficient. As a side benefit, it should make it easier for Banks residents to get a little more restful sleep.

The P&W’s new track, which is being paid for with a substantial grant from the state of Oregon, will more efficiently link the rail line that passes through North Plains on its way to and from Portland (and the railroad’s Astoria Line customers) with the route that runs between Banks and Hillsboro on its way into the Willamette Valley.

The new connection will join the two lines at Wilkesboro, which is just east of Banks.

“This is a partially state-funded ConnectOregon III project that will significantly improve the functional utility of P&W’s connection between the Astoria Line and the bulk of P&W’s rail system in the Willamette Valley,” explained Robert Melbo, state rail planner for the Oregon Department of Transportation.

The Oregon Legislature created the “Multi-modal Transportation Fund” in 2005 to allow the state to invest in air, marine, rail and public transit infrastructure improvements. The legislation — which came to be known as the ConnectOregon program — was designed to provide grants and loans to non-highway transportation projects that promote economic development in Oregon.

The Wilkesboro connection will in effect serve as a Banks bypass, allowing through trains to move continuously on the segment between North Plains and Hillsboro, thereby eliminating the need to go into the rail yard at Banks and slicing as much as an hour off transit times on the railroad’s route between Portland (Linnton) and Albany.

The way the existing track is configured, trains coming in from Hillsboro or North Plains now have to go into the rail yard at Banks and essentially turn around to continue on. This lengthy process entails pulling the train into Banks, cutting off the locomotives, and then moving the locomotives to the other end of the train before going forward again.

“After stopping, the engine is detached and uses a parallel track to run to the rear end of the train, where the locomotive is reattached so the train can depart in the opposite direction, either to Hillsboro/Tigard or to the Astoria Line at Linnton,” Melbo explained.

After making this “run around” move, the train crew must also perform a test to be certain the train’s brakes are working properly before departure.

“The big change for P&W will be that trains moving over Cornelius Pass from the Astoria Line to Tigard and vice versa will avoid the need to come into Banks and expend time there running around the train to effect a change in direction of travel as they do now,” Melbo said. “All of this time-consuming procedure will be eliminated by the new connection.”

A new at-grade road crossing will be built on Wilkesboro Road to accommodate the connecting track, which will be approximately two-thirds of a mile in length.

Todd Watkins, principal engineer with the Washington County Road Operations & Maintenance Department, said the new crossing on Wilkesboro Road will have gates and flashing lights.

“It will be a fully-controlled crossing,” Watkins said.

Watkins added that the railroad will pay to construct and install the railroad crossing, but the county will have some responsibilities after that.

“We’ll be responsible for the pavement markings and the signs,” he said.

The cost of the Wilkesboro rail project is roughly $3.1 million, of which almost $2.4 million will be covered by the ConnectOregon grant while the railroad pays the rest.

Once the new track is in place, Melbo said local residents are likely to appreciate the change.

“I would point out that this (switching) activity now occurs largely at night and next to a subdivision,” he explained. “Once the new track is built, the nighttime activity in Banks will be substantially reduced.”

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