Monday, May 15, 2023

Looking at more passenger train service connecting eastern and western Washington

By Janet Matkin

What would it take to add more central and eastern Washington passenger rail service?

As a state transportation agency that sponsors passenger rail service along the coast, we get that question a lot. We and others have studied the idea and so far, have not found a financially feasible solution – but we know the desire for this service continues.

That’s why we’re participating in and sharing news about a new Federal Railroad Administration study that is looking at expanding Amtrak’s long-distance network. The federal Amtrak Daily Long-Distance Service Study isn’t finished – and several other steps, including federal funding also would be needed to add service in Washington state – but we want everyone to have the chance to follow and participate in the federal process.

We’re participating in a new Federal Railroad Administration study looking at expanding
Amtrak’s long-distance network.

In 2021, Congress directed the FRA to study 18 long-distance Amtrak routes that were discontinued in the 1970s because they were no longer financially viable. Among those discontinued routes is the North Coast Hiawatha line that connected Seattle to Ellensburg, Yakima, Pasco and Spokane – before continuing on to Chicago. This route traversed the Cascade Mountains through Stampede Pass and a series of tunnels built in the 1880s. The Hiawatha started service in 1971 (shortly after Amtrak was formed) and was discontinued in 1979.

Of course, Amtrak’s Empire Builder long-distance route still connects several Washington cities today. It travels from Chicago to Spokane before splitting into two segments – one to Seattle, with stops in Ephrata, Wenatchee, Leavenworth and Everett, and the other to Portland, with stops in Pasco, Wishram and Bingen-White Salmon. But these trains do not stop in Yakima or Ellensburg, which were previously served by the North Coast Hiawatha, and we know residents in those areas have long wanted greater passenger rail access and service.

As part of the new study, the FRA recently held six regional workshops – including one for the country’s Northwest Region. Our Rail, Freight and Ports Division participated in this meeting, alongside representatives from Amtrak, other state DOTs, the Class I Railroads, local planning organizations, federally recognized tribes, local officials and rail advocacy organizations.

Materials from those initial meetings can be found online. The Northwest group recommended several themes to be considered when deciding which lines can and should be re-established, including the:

  • Number of rural areas that routes could/should connect
  • Availability of local transit and other connections in station communities along a route
  • Number of areas with higher-than-average disadvantaged populations a route would serve
  • Ridership potential
  • Economic benefits to communities along a route
  • Cost and schedule competitiveness with auto and air travel
  • Greater frequency on existing long-distance and state-sponsored routes (in lieu of route restoration)
  • Needed improvement to railroad tracks to enable increased speeds for passenger rail

Next steps of the federal study

Once complete at the end of this year, the federal study will include a vision for expanded long-distance passenger rail service. It will identify preferred options for restored, enhanced or new long-distance service and include a prioritized list of capital projects and other actions needed to restore or expand the routes. The study also will include cost estimates and potential public benefits for regions along the routes – and identify potential federal and other sources of funding.

Once the study is submitted to Congress for consideration, it is expected Congress may provide federal funding for the improvements needed to restore the long-distance routes and keep them operational in the future.

In Washington state, federal financial support will be key to any plans pursuing additional passenger train service to central and eastern Washington. A 2020 analysis done by the Washington Legislature’s Joint Transportation Committee looked at the viability of providing more passenger rail service within Washington that would serve Auburn, Ellensburg, Yakima and the Tri-Cities.

The state report determined a state-financed route would be financially and logistically challenging due to:

  • The long journey times (8½ hours between Seattle and Spokane)
  • Low ridership projections (about 200,000 annually)
  • High costs of construction estimated in the range of $320 million to $420 million
  • The high cost of installing federally mandated Positive Train Control safety, which was not included in the 2020 estimates
  • Ongoing operating subsidy costs to keep the service running

If a federally funded long-distance service was established – such as the resumption of the North Coast Hiawatha line, service connecting eastern and western Washington on the central route might be more feasible – but that decision still depends on several other steps. That is why we are supporting the federal study and looking forward to its completion at the end of 2023.

Those with questions or comments about FRA’s long-distance study are encouraged to submit them via the comment form at the bottom of the study webpage at:

1 comment:

Breck Lebegue MD MPH said...

Medically underserved communities are increasing in Washington, due to closure of units and withdrawal of medical specialty services after COVID-induced cost increases and inflation. This new and growing crucial unmet need was not considered in previous WSDOT deliberations. Dependable frequent rail transport of patients along I-90 who cannot drive, to medical specialty services in Seattle and Spokane, can meet this growing gap in medical care services.

WA Physicians for Social Responsibility and All Aboard Washington will collaborate to survey medical providers and consultants, to assess the gaps in transport to medical care. We will report survey results to WSDOT, the Legislative Rail Caucus, and Federal Rail Administration. Rapid restoration of the North Coast Hiawatha Line will provide an essential community service
Breck Lebegue MD MPH WA Physicans for Social Responsibilty

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