In 1925 the railroad began construction on a new Cascade Tunnel,
located about 500 feet down the mountainside. For the most part this tunnel sat away from the worst of the mountain's winters being located below the highest elevations. Opened four years later in 1929 it was impressive in its length at 7.8 miles. However, while
it avoided the worst of the winter weather, Cascade proved a headache to operate. The extraordinary length forced the Great Northern to electrify the tunnel to avoid fumigation issues, caused by operating steam locomotives.
However, as it turns out the railroad had constant trouble with its electrics, which always seemed to have issues obtaining the correct voltage
needed to power trains over the summit and through the tunnel (it has
been said that the GN's electrified operations were never engineered
Finally, after World War II the railroad chose to abandon its electrics and
switch to diesels in 1956. By doing so, the GN had to install an
expensive ventilation system to keep the diesel exhaust well fumigated. This proved to be more difficult than originally expected; fumigation problems haunted the railroad and
its successor, Burlington Northern, not only because of the tunnel's
length but also due to the grade, about 1.7% from west to east. The first ventilation
systems took up to, if not more than, an hour to clear the tunnel of fumes before another train was allowed to enter. Additionally, crews
were required to wear, or at least have with them, respirators in the
event of a ventilation failure as it usually took a train a full hour to
scale the tunnel.
Today, owner BNSF Railway has installed a ventilation system capable of removing exhaust within 20 minutes although crews
are still required to have respirators with them at all times. For an
idea of just how bad it could be for crewmen operating through tunnel please read this account by John Crosby who worked this segment of the line during the Burlington Northern era.
Train speeds today for BNSF freights and Amtrak passenger trains are
held to 25 mph. One still has to wonder, however, why Burlington
Northern did not exercise its ownership of nearby Snoqualmie Tunnel
after the Milwaukee Road abandoned its main line through this region in 1980. Using that
bore, which was the best engineered tunnel across the Cascade range,
would have saved BN and BNSF millions in maintenance costs and
liability. For more reading about the history of Cascade please click here.
For more reading about Snoqualmie Tunnel please click here. For more reading about the Wellington train disaster I would highly recommend the book Vis Major
by author Martin Burwash. Mr. Burwash describes in great detail the
work done by the Great Northern train crewmen and workforce in trying to get the
line open during all of the days stuck on the mountainside.
Essentially, the novel tells the story of the railroaders and their
experience of the disaster. If you're interested in perhaps purchasing Mr. Burwash's book please visit the link above which will
take you to ordering information through Amazon.com.