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Originally published Wednesday, December 26, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Entrepreneur wheels, deals for Eastside rail

A former locomotive engineer who transformed a failing rail line into Canada's third-largest railroad wants to start a privately operated...

Seattle Times staff reporter

A former locomotive engineer who transformed a failing rail line into Canada's third-largest railroad wants to start a privately operated commuter rail service from Bellevue to Snohomish.

Tom Payne, founder of RaiLink, says "if everybody put the shoulder to the wheel," diesel trains could be carrying passengers by next summer. After replacement of a bridge, trains could continue from Bellevue to Renton, he said.

For months Payne has worked behind the scenes with save-the-rail group All Aboard Washington to put a deal together for privately funded passenger service on the old freight line the Port of Seattle is planning to buy.

Now Payne, who keeps his old engineer's hat and coveralls at the ready, has emerged as the most colorful figure in the movement to save the Eastside rail line. With his full gray beard and plain-spoken manner, he comes across more like a man who worked his way up from brakeman to engineer than the successful entrepreneur he became.

"My whole focus in this," he said, "is let's do the conventional. Nothing extraordinary here. The simpler the better. Conventional stuff on conventional track."

Ordinary diesel engines would pull two-level passenger cars, as on Sound Transit's Sounder trains to Seattle.

Payne and All Aboard Washington are working out the details to present to the Port next month. Until the proposal is complete, they aren't giving a total cost.

But Payne has some estimates.

Building simple stations with open shelters and putting used diesel trains on the existing tracks with modest improvements would cost "in the range of $40 million," Payne said. Replacing the tracks to increase train speeds from 30 mph to 40 mph would cost about $40 million more, he estimates.

To start, six trains would run from Snohomish to Bellevue in the morning, and six trains would run the opposite direction in the evening.

Doug Engle, a consultant to Payne's newest corporation, GNP Railway, said the plan is to replace the existing track and, at the same time, install a hiking and biking trail.

"Our proposal is to provide the granddaddy of all trails, paved from end to end, in 2008," he said, borrowing King County Executive Ron Sims' description of the trail.

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Port Commission President John Creighton called Payne's concept "intriguing." Metropolitan King County Councilmember Kathy Lambert said, "People will be excited to see a solution that's inexpensive and won't take 20 years to do."

Payne, 58, was an engineer for the Canadian Pacific Railway when he founded his own company, Central Western Railway, to buy an underperforming rural branch line in Alberta from Canadian National Railways in 1986.

He built up the grain-hauling business on the line, which had been in danger of closing. Over the next decade, he bought more lines until he had more than 2,500 miles of track in five provinces — making it Canada's third-largest railroad in track miles.

Payne's company, renamed RaiLink, went public and in 1999 was bought out by RailAmerica for $50 million in cash and $20 million in assumed debt. As 8-percent owner of RaiLink, he walked away with enough money to form his own holding company.

"For a company that started from zero in 1986 with me mortgaging my house and pledging my kids and turning it into a multimillion-dollar company in 10 to 12 years, that's not bad," he said.

Payne was inducted into the Canadian Railway Hall of Fame in 2002 and moved to Tacoma in 2005 to open a tourist rail line the following year. His train, pulled by a steam locomotive, carried passengers from Freighthouse Square to Frederickson.

Tacoma's city-owned Tacoma Rail didn't renew Payne's contract after the first year and signed a deal this year with the Spirit of Washington Dinner Train, which had been kicked off BNSF's Eastside line. The dinner train began service in Tacoma in August and shut down in October.

"He's been looking for something to sink his teeth into," Engle said of Payne.

Spirit of Washington Dinner Train owner Eric Temple said Payne's cost estimates seem "completely reasonable" and the track is in good shape.

When All Aboard Washington pitched the idea of commuter rail to Sims' advisers earlier this year, Chief of Staff Kurt Triplett was unimpressed.

Now, as the Port works to sign a final deal to buy the track from BNSF, Triplett said, "The challenge will be: What's your solution, how will you pay for it and how do you get approval from all the entities that matter?"

Payne's next tasks are to complete a ridership study and business plan, strike a deal with the Port, and pull together a financing package that could top $100 million. He also will have to figure out how to add passenger service from Renton to Bellevue after the Wilburton Tunnel bridge is removed for Interstate 405 construction.

To skeptics who question whether commuters would take a train from Snohomish to Bellevue, Payne lays it out, "Maybe you don't want to do that. Maybe you'd rather drive down Highway 9 at 17 mph. Fine, go do it, but if it was me, I'd be delighted to park at Harvey Field, go get my cup of coffee at the station, get on the train, have Internet access on the train and sit on my cushions all the way down to Bellevue, where I walk across the bridge across 405 to my office."

Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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