ZigZagZac (Flickr)
Spokane Intermodal Center – ZiggZagZac (Flickr)

After WSDOT closed both Snoqualmie Pass and Stevens Passes on Christmas Eve due to ten feet (3 meters) of snow, I watched on social media as my friends trying to head east for a Spokane Christmas either despondently stayed home or pressed on by driving to Spokane via Portland. 

With bus service also shut down and flights packed, the Seattle Times coverage of the closures noted that one Amtrak ticket across the Cascades was available at the time of publication, a $750 bedroom on the Empire Builder. Which is a shame, because Amtrak’s Empire Builder ran flawlessly through the storms.

We need more and better options across the Cascades, not just redundancy during rare road closures, but plausible and convenient options that knit the state together without requiring a personal car. 

Consider a simple trip to Spokane. By my rough estimates, personal vehicles account for 89% of average weekday trips across the chokepoint of the major passes, with Snoqualmie (15,000) and Stevens Pass (2,000) averaging 17,000 vehicles per day (of course, only a fraction are headed to Spokane, but it’s a rough proxy). An order of magnitude smaller, the 15 daily flights between Seattle-Spokane on Alaska and Delta provide another 1,700 seats. Nearly a further order of magnitude smaller, 4 daily buses provide 200 seats, and the Empire Builder averages just 73 daily Spokane passengers from all stations between Seattle/Portland and Chicago. 

Are we stuck with cars for the vast majority and niche options for the rest? Though WSDOT has shown a significant interest in intercity bus service, its initial lines have been rural lifeline service connecting Spokane-Kettle Falls, Seattle-Port Angeles, Omak-Ellensburg, and Pasco-Walla Walla. But perhaps nowhere is WSDOT’s involvement in public transportation more appropriate than with intercity bus and train service.

So where should we start? What kinds of services would you like to see? In the short term, I’d love WSDOT to either subsidize additional frequencies on Northwest Trailways or Greyhound, or better yet entice Bolt Bus to offer nonstop Seattle-Spokane service. Medium to long term, we need state-operated rail services untied to Amtrak’s oscillating fates. The list of projects needed would be long, including a crown-cut tunnel and new welded rail over Stampede Pass, capacity improvements over Stevens Pass, and maybe new rail from Ellensburg to Lind. But no matter the specifics or mode, we need to live in a state where traveling between our major cities is easier than, “Good luck, I hope you have chains and all-wheel drive.”

161 Replies to “We Need More Options Across the Mountains”

  1. Excellent post, Zach.

    After a really bad experience with Northwestern Trailways over the holiday, I’m reluctant to suggest public financing of bus service over the mountains. Their drivers lied to us about what bus they were, they were several hours late, and despite a claim on their website that they would post any delays of more than one hour to the web page, their was no announcement that they’d be running late. This is basic communication. Fine, don’t promise to announce delays on your website if you don’t plan to!!! But I was counting on being able to check if there was a delay, so I wouldn’t be sitting at King Street Station for over TWO HOURS waiting for a passenger to arrive. No delay was ever posted, and I kept re-reading the message that any delays of over an hour would be posted to their website.

    Buses don’t solve the problem of terrible road conditions across the mountains on freeway. Trains do. As you mentioned, the Empire Builder ran flawlessly through the storms. This seems to be a no-brainer to start passenger service within Washington (and possibly Idaho – to Coeur d’Alene) on an east-west route, similar to what is offered on Amtrak Cascades on the north-south route. The idea that people want to ride cross-country in a sleeper car is a bit obsolete, and seems like more of a niche tourist market, not a transportation service that will ever be used by the masses. Rail service needs to run at normal daytime hours, unlike the Empire Builder. This route should probably extend south to at least Tacoma, and possibly Olympia, to ensure that you capture the full Puget Sound region in a rider area. The current Empire Builder routing does a good job of incorporating Everett, as well as a stop in everybody’s favorite tourist town, Leavenworth. (Side note, improved rail service to Leavenworth could significantly improve the ridiculous parking situation there on festival weekends.) SO, the current routing via Stevens Pass is probably a good starting point, with longer-term improvements to Stampede Pass something to plan for down the road.

    1. We had a guy at work killed on a stretch of black Ice just east of Stevens Pass, he was taking his family to visit Leavenworth. It was very sad, and he was from Japan where they have an excellent rail network, and Leavenworth to Seattle would have probably had an electrified service using EMU’s. There are a number of places around Tokyo where electrified railways allow for a day trip where the cars stays in the garage, and you let “the train take the strain.”

      The Cascade Tunnel has a pilot tunnel that was used to construct the main bore. The plan at the time was that the pilot tunnel would be enlarged when traffic warranted expansion, if done the present bottleneck would have excess capacity. In particular if the line was (re-) electrified. Sounder trains could even run out to Leavenworth on weekends.

      1. I’ve never heard of any plans for the pilot tunnel to have been anything but drainage once the tunnel was completed.

        If the tunnel had stayed electrified it wouldn’t be any more of a bottleneck than many other places along the line – it is the need to ventilate the diesel exhaust that really makes the tunnel an issue.

  2. I second all of your points! Having gone to and from Pullman for four years either by car or plane wasn’t fun, especially since I don’t have a car. We really need a statewide transit system that’s mostly made up of bus routes and builds on the backbone of a frequent Seattle Spokane rail route.

  3. WSDOT should publish a net cost verse net benefit analysis. I’m guessing that the numbers are probably going to show investing in this problem isn’t worth it. You can fly, you can take Amtrak, and you can drive around it via Portland. I’ve lived in Seattle my entire life and this is the first time there’s been no road option that I can remember. Why pour money into a problem that’s happened once in our lifetimes?

    Slow news day I guess.

    1. It emits much less carbon then cars and planes and frees up space at SeaTac, plus promotes public transit and enables much more people to get around without a car.

    2. I would settle for putting empire builder on steroids. Currently the run is nothing more than a slow moving tourist/retiree/student option for easterly travel. Speed it up and maybe add another train set and we would have a difference maker. But any major investments would be a waste; sprawl is already bad enough in the PS, we don’t need to encourage it that far east.

      1. Just changing to a reasonable time of day would do wonders for people wanting to go from Seattle to Spokane and back. We have relatives in North Idaho so make the trip often by plane or car. We would choose the train over both IF it showed or left Spokane at a sane hour but it doesn’t and probably never will.

      2. Yeah, this doesn’t have to be absolute. It would take a lot of money to make the trip to Spokane really fast. But I would guess that you could improve parts of it fairly cheaply. Once you get east of the mountains it is fairly straight and I would imagine you could achieve fairly fast speeds with a bit of effort. That, plus reasonable start time for what really is the key connection (Seattle to Spokane) makes a lot of sense. That is the trip that makes the most sense by train. To Chicago or even Minnesota is too far — taking a plane makes more sense. But Spokane is in that sweet spot, worth bothering with a trip downtown, but not worth bothering for a plane.

    3. Having been a WSU student for five years whose home is in Seattle, driving the pass was always a concern during the winter months. More than once occasion, driving plans were changed due to weather. Several winters I’ve been stuck with thousands of others on the pass for hours due to snow. This has happened more than once in our lifetimes, just need to pay better attention.

      Both flying and driving represent significant government investments that may not survive a cost-benefit analysis either. The I-90 expansions over Snoqualmie are costing a fortune and Stevens has rather limited capacity and SeaTac capacity is at a premium. Flying isn’t always an option due to limited capacity, high price, Alaska/etc not wanting to fly frequent routes, and weather. Driving has its obvious flaws while driving around via PDX isn’t a reasonable alternative. What are the disadvantages in investing in resiliancy? Unlike flying and driving, trains are much more weather-proof and resilient. They can be operated much more frequently without taking up finite resources at SeaTac, connect more cities, and people like trains when they’re properly invested in. Freight rail also benefits from east-west track improvements, making our ports more competitive. A billion spent on Stampede could go a long ways to improving mobility in our state.

      Next time, I invite you to think a little bigger when claiming “let’s not do anything since this doesn’t impact me”.

    4. Photo explains everything that follows. Hate to be the one to break it to you, but ducks’ perspective is limited by the fact that they generally fly over waterways, and Stevens Pass is above their cruising altitude.

      This time of year, however cost of cornmeal can be sudden lead acquisition, so huge benefit is from borrowing brown and grey feather coats from lady ducks.

      By the way, congrats on surviving the a latest December Day of Infamy. But for New Years advantage of regular passenger rail is that there’d be a safe warm baggage car to hide in

      Better than a car trunk, where it’s impossible to disguise your plumage as a spare tire.

      Mark

  4. Although I would like this, I just don’t see it as much of a priority. There is already plenty of capacity on the existing routes for passenger travel, and the occasional shutdowns for snow or avalanche control just don’t warrant much of an infrastructure investment.

    The main cross-state transportation focus has always been freight, and I doubt the overall freight system was as impacted by our recent storms as was our relatively fragile road system.

    1. JP Morgan or one of those Robber Barons (before modern PR, that WAS PR) agreed with you:

      “A passenger train is about as useful as (mammary equipment on a male pig!)” (KIRO traffic reports say that Donald Trump’s limo will be 140 minutes late getting out of Bellevue.)

      Though considering Government subsidies to railroads like huge gifts of land where a lot Native Americans were recently buried by the Government Owned! cavalry , the National Association of Male Pigs gets some air time too.

      Freedom of choice thing too, Lazarus. Anybody who’s content to view the whole country they own from the cabin of a jetliner can cut a foot wide hole in the side of a panel van, and eat year-old packages of peanuts all day. For extra fare.

      And even bracket a TV to the ceiling with a rack full of Jim Carey movies.

      Was going to suggest deliberately refusing to take bathroom stops for at least five hours, but twenty miles east of Index any Sunday, traffic won’t make it necessary to think about it.

      Mark

  5. I wonder if any other State in the Union has as bad- read non- existent- internal ground passenger travel as we do.

    Also, wonder which came first: the almost complete economic and political divide marked by the Cascade Crest, or present transportation disconnect.

    Spokane, and many working places across the mountains used to send people like Tom Foley to Congress. Now, Republicans of those days would long since have been thrown out of their party.

    And everybody voting for everything young and vital are registered either in Seattle or some other State.

    Starting when those places ceased to be working, with only industries left being retirement communities and methamphetamine.

    Agree on need for bus travel. Too bad Greyhound would be part of the penal system provided they raised their quality to decent standards. A ride with them used to be a pleasure.

    In some other countries, either same company or agency runs both trains and buses- or there’s real competition between good-quality private companies.

    But over the Cascades, the best bus lines in the world would still be stopped by snow. So you’re right about need for more and better rail too.

    Highway 2 over Stevens Pass would be a fantastic place for a modern passenger rail line. Present ski-trains show it’s possible to get part of the way.

    But major improvement, a lot of days in any weather, rail passengers wouldn’t have to pity the thousands of stationary travelers they’re passing at 80.

    And the far right could legitimately say: “Well, these people are trapped by their own choice!”

    Mark

    1. I wonder if any other State in the Union has as bad- read non- existent- internal ground passenger travel as we do.

      Most of them, I’m fairly sure. Ohio is very similar to Washington, but without local agencies picking up the intercity slack: Their “Go Lines” are rural livelines, but (for example) Dayton (150K, metro 840K) and Cincinnati (300K, Metro 2.2M) are 50 miles apart; the only option if Greyhound.

      1. Yeah, except for maybe one or two corridors, rail travel in this country is terrible. Meanwhile people still subsidize travel that really makes no sense (like trips from Chicago to Seattle).

    2. “I wonder if any other State in the Union has as bad- read non- existent- internal ground passenger travel as we do. ”

      Most of them.

      Alaska, Hawaii, and Nevada are obvious, as is all of the Deep South (Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia) and the Appalachians (Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia).

      But the awful state of internal ground passenger transportation in Ohio and Pennsylvania, which are truly densely populated, is a genuine national shame.

  6. Great post. Although this is not exactly where you were going with your post, I think it’s related. I wish there were trains that regularly serviced Issaquah to Snoqualmie Pass. I am Seattleite that gets around everywhere in the city by car and public transit BUT I only own a car to get to the mountains (I moved here from Philly for this reason alone). Yes, I know there is zip car and other car sharing services but I literally go to the mountains every single weekend. It just makes sense for me to own a car. Anyway, I would totally give up my car if there was a train (sorry not a bus) that serviced the I-90 corridor up to Snoqualmie Pass (or even further). Wishful thinking, I know, and probably something that only exists in Switzerland. Any chance this could ever happen?

    1. Of course we USED to have rail on 90 over Snoqualmie Pass, but the old Milwaukee Road tracks were torn up and now a trail exists where crack trains once plied. Rail will never grace Snoqualmie Pass again, unfortunately.

  7. Mark Dublin makes a good point regarding the Stevens Pass ski area. The tunnel goes literally under the ski area. A station on either side of the ski area, in combination with a shuttle bus, would make a great connection for Seattle-area ski enthusiasts.

    1. Thanks for comment, Engineer. But remember, my main short-term goal for the Stevens Pass and Eastern Line-railroads used to have names like that- is to make getting stuck in traffic from Everett to Wenatchee a voluntary choice.

      Which would probably cost a fraction of the next inevitable set of car lanes, which would simply widen the parking lot. Only positive result to taxpayers would be the ability to replace highway patrolmen with parking lot attendants.

      Have a feeling only ridership problem will be constantly having to add coaches. Talk about certain bus lines being lying fakes! Car-travel advertisements from both car companies and the State of Washington offer things only available on trains.

      Mark

  8. Zach,

    Puget Sound already subsidizes the entire eastern half of the State from the crest of the Cascades to the Idaho border to the tune of nearly 2/3 of total government expenditures. Why give the envious “Socialism” whiners any more money to waste? They’d ride those trains two times a year: Christmas/New Years, Thanksgiving and then two occasional snowfalls which close the passes.

    The rest of the time they’d run empty with the Yahoo caucus throwing fecal boli at them.

    Jon is right. And you just can’t fix stupid.

    1. Business travelers and tourists would take them, at least. Plus, a lot of people are still going to take them no matter what ideology they are.

    2. As a native of Coeur d’Alene I can assure you that fecal boli toss is not a feature of our daily lives.

      The idea is not to spend billions on passenger trains across the mountains, but to first add bus service that meaningfully and competitively connects our cities and induces us not to drive, and then later to get passenger trains as a ride-along benefit of improving the freight network. If the state ponies up the cash for any improvements, such as crown-cutting, welding, and signaling the Stampede Pass line, they should do so with an explicit agreement for permanent track easements for passenger trains.

    3. When I read the article my first reaction is exactly what Anandakos wrote.

      It’s hard to get excited about a plan to pay more of my taxes for people who are just going to vote for the next Eyman initiative anyways (and then use that as an excuse to cut funding for my part of the state).

      1. It’s hard for transit advocates like me to get excited about Sound Transit 3/ST3 when folks work to deny other Washingtonians quality transit across county lines and on state highways & interstate highways.

      2. @Joe,

        The same economic metrics that are used to justify transit investment in our denser urban areas should be used when evaluating other transit investments in the state. Want improved cross state travel on buses? show us how it makes economic sense compared to investing somewhere else….

      3. “Want improved cross state travel on buses? show us how it makes economic sense compared to investing somewhere else….”

        Sure, considering county connectors in Northwest Washington are almost full and keep hundreds if not several thousand cars off of I-5, case made.

        I come down on the side – and hope you will too – time to grow the base of transit voters and transit support. By doing that in Skagit, Whatcom, and Island Counties (for starters), it makes it easier for legislators to support transit – no matter their political party.

      4. Lazarus nailed it – if the eastern half of the state wants something from our common pot then they need to show how it’ll stack up against adding a bus line in Seattle, or Tacoma, or Everett, or anywhere else. If it doesn’t measure up then they need to pay for it themselves. Case closed.

      5. Joe “AvgeekJoe” Kunzler says

        It’s hard for transit advocates like me to get excited about Sound Transit 3/ST3 when folks work to deny other Washingtonians quality transit across county lines and on state highways & interstate highways.

        Joe “AvgeekJoe” Kunzler – if the eastern half of the state wants something from our common pot then they need to show how it’ll stack up against adding a bus line in Seattle, or Tacoma, or Everett, or anywhere else. If it doesn’t measure up then they need to pay for it themselves. Case closed.

        Yeah and how many transit advocates are east of the Cascades?

        Probably less than five.

        We have enough problems with transit for the I-5 corridor as-is.

        ID frawd, schizophenia or ???

      6. No, priorities.

        #1. I-5 corridor linkage from Whatcom to Thurston
        #2. ST3, provided ST3 boosters support #1
        #3. 32 other counties’ transit not in the I-5 corridor (Whatcom, Skagit, Snohomish, King, Pierce, and Thurston) and Island County kinda, sorta in the corridor.

      7. I think that if anyone wants to convince me that we ought to be spending King County’s tax dollars elsewhere they need to make a convincing case that doing so will actually buy us the friends they’re promising.

        Last I saw King County produces something like 23-24% of WA’s revenue, but only sees 16% of the state budget being spent in King County. So we’re already sending about a third of our taxes to the rest of the state, and we’re single-handedly providing a quarter of the entire state’s budget. My assumption is that this is stuff King County needs + enough pork to buy the friends needed to get it.

        But that doesn’t change the fact that we’re sending an enormous amount of money to the rest of the state and they don’t seem to be supporting us back (e.g., the Eyman initiatives).

        So if us paying for Spokane to have comfortable, quick, free transit to Seattle is supposed to win us friends over there then we need to see proof of that up front.

      8. Zog;

        Buddy, I got a lot to say to that.

        #1. “So if us paying for Spokane to have comfortable, quick, free transit to Seattle is supposed to win us friends over there then we need to see proof of that up front.” I can understand that. I’m not for free transit. I’m for transit with a fare. Why? See Island Transit.

        #2. This Skagitonian knows damn good and well Skagitonian taxdollars go over the Deception Pass Bridge to Island County. While we have many needs – including transit – at home, Skagitonians are providing aid to Island County because there are times we do things as 39 counties and times we do things as one state and one nation.

        “Disabled” American Defending OLF Coupeville? One nation, under G*d, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.

        Transit aid for Island Transit? Only if attached to accountability as one state.

        #3. Eyman initiatives are another thing we do as one state. Including a majority in King County in 2012 and in 2010. Not so much in 1999/I-695 and I can cite other election measures, but there is the fact nobody seriously wants King County to secede from the State of Washington. There is also the fact a King County majority supports some Eyman ideas, so get over this King County vs. 38 other counties.

        The last time our state tried splitting in two and shipping Eastern Washington (and Dino Rossi) off – 2005 – we went nowhere. G*d willing, we will have Bill Bryant as Governor… at least he’s competent and will keep the state together and won’t drag some of you along to sell all of us out, but I digress.

    4. LOL

      Subsidy implies that tax dollars actually flow east, which they really don’t. That’s why PS has all the new infrastructure and Spokane continues to wait (40+ years now) for it’s north/south freeway.

      1. While the net flow is from the wealthiest to the poorest the big budget items are welfare and education. I’m sure the Republicans in those counties would be more than happy to cut welfare if not education spending. PI has a point when it comes to road dollars. The WSDOT report County By County Comparison – Return Per Dollar Contributed by Citizens within Each County of State & Federal Transportation Funds shows Spokane is getting the short end of the stick. For every dollar contributed they get back 84 cents (pg 7). But when you look at total contribution (gas tax is collected by the State at the wholesale level) it’s much worse; 50 cents on the dollar (pg 14). As a region the Puget Sound (defined as King, Pierce and Snohomish counties) gets back $1.10 vs the Eastern Region netting only 46 cents (pg 15). When it comes to roads you can see why Eastern Washington is circling the wagons.

      1. Actually, Lazarus, stupid wastes of money don’t do anywhere near the damage of intelligent ones.

        The experts that gave us both the Viet Nam war and the transit-murdering Crash of 2008 wore more than their share of glasses, formely a hundred percent symptom of being intelligent.

        Advent of contact lenses makes a dangerously high IQ virtually undetectable. But since stupidity is impossible either to fake or conceal, we’ve got a wide range of candidates we know can’t destroy the country.

        Mark

      2. Whats with the StrongTowns common sense about roads penciling out!?! If its a road, as ‘Muricans we must throw endless money at any possibly conceived road demand!! (end sarcasm)

    1. Two, three-lane auto tunnels a dozen miles long in hard rock would be incredibly expensive.

      It’d be cheaper, easier, and safer to double track Stampede Pass, put cars+trucks on trains (auto trains), then shuttle people between Auburn and Ellensburg. Switzerland does this. Same with the EuroTunnel.

      1. Terrific idea, Mike. But wouldn’t that also be great for Sounder and LINK?

        Trapped car passengers might make the mental modal connection quicker if they saw a whole lane-load of automobile drivers come screaming by at 70, doing that thumb-on-the-nose-waving-fingers thing.

        In Stuttgart, Germany, streetcars with cog-wheels engaging toothed track to climb grades also push flatcars with bike racks.

        Cog-wheel climbing mechanism could change mode calculation on Madison. Though buses could use it too. In addition to bike flatcars.

        Possible end to the tragic Spoke/Grooved Track war, especially for South Lake Union and the Waterfront. (Nose and finger wiggle) Try that with a golf cart!”

        Mark

  9. Unfortunately, Amtrak is an afterthought in our rail network. The rail lines are run by the freight companies, and the freight rail is already over capacity. If we as a nation were serious about infrastructure, we’d have already started on the most pressing need: a new rail tunnel across the Cascades. Horrendously expensive — why, it would probably cost almost as much as that big tunnel under downtown that serves no function whatsoever.

    1. There are already 3 rail lines to E.Wa and they are only overcapacity in relation to how they are managed. Building yet another tunnel under the Cascadeswould serve no constructive purpose as it would just dump more trains onto the antiquated E.Wa rail network.

      A better bet? Re-open the Beverley line and go to directional running on Stampede and Stevens. It would a lot cheaper and actually do something productive.

      1. The Stevens Pass tunnel is in regular use. The Stampede Pass tunnel is undermaintained. The Snoqualmie Pass tunnel has been, disgracefully, converted into a trail.

        Reopen all three and keep them in decent condition and there would be plenty of capacity…

      2. Stampede Pass is also run directional–eastbound–by BNSF, running mostly empties that came west via the Columbia River route. The Pass was also double-track for decades before it was idled in the 80s and 90s, but the tunnel’s going to be a major project because of its design. I had the impression that crown cutting wouldn’t work.

        Something’s going to have to be done eventually. I think it’s a worthwhile investment to bring the Stampede Pass line up to standard and rebuild the old Milwaukee Road from Ellensburg to Lind.

        I’m in Auburn and I’d love to see Amtrak stop here and a couple of those Talgo trainsets going over to Spokane and Tri-Cities, though it’ll take a lot of investment and arm-twisting to get that plan to work well.

    2. BNSF could add E-W capacity any time it wanted to by fixing the Stampede Pass tunnel to handle double-stacks, adding CTC and sidings. If the state wanted to build the Ellensburg-Lind connection, that would help too.

    3. Yes, there are some chokepoints in the national rail system (Stevens Pass, for example), but due to falling coal shipments, lower demand for intermodal service and significant infrastructure investment by the Class Ones over the last decade, the national rail system is in better shape than it was in 2000. The freight railroads are reluctant, however, to hand that capacity over to Amtrak.

      1. I’m not talking about the national rail system, just BNSF’s corner of it up here. Rail freight traffic is increasing, regardless of what happens with coal and oil, and there is extreme congestion here. BNSF won’t hand over capacity to Amtrak because there isn’t enough of it in the first place. The N-S spine from Portland to Canada and the Cascade Tunnel are over capacity and the Stampede Tunnel is too damn small for modern trains. “New tunnel” doesn’t have to be a new route — just an enlargement of an existing one. Europeans do it all the time. But tunnels are expensive.

      2. @Fnarf,

        Yes, Europeans do it all the time. And it certainly isn’t that hard to do. The question really is, “Is it worth doing?” And the answer to that is undoubtably a resounding “No”!

        Think of it, at 15000 vehicles per day (using zach’s numbers from above) the need to do anything about Sno Pass is questionable compared to the major roads in the PS area.

        Yea, freight is important, but improving that picture won’t take billions in the form of a new tunnel.

      3. OK, but contrast “billions in the form of a new tunnel” to “fewer billions to reopen a mothballed tunnel” for the Snoqualmie Pass / Milwaukee Road route. How does the math look now?

  10. Amtrak studied restoring the North Coast Limited route as part of the 2009 ARRA legislation. The capital costs to restore passenger service between Seattle/Ellensburg/Yakima/Tri-Cities/Spokane was about $200 million (not including trainsets and annual operating subsidy). The trip would likely take about 8 hours with Talgo trains, due to the tougher terrain over Stampede Pass and a longer routing. But a daily train that operated during waking hours might be fairly popular year round. Snow and storms cause problems in the winter but summer weather conditions can also be very hard on auto traffic.

    Adding a train via Stevens Pass would allow for quicker trip times, but the track improvements required for another daily train would likely be more expensive than what is required for a train via Stampede Pass. Getting legislative approval for a new Seattle to Spokane train would also be difficult. The only hope would be to get the legislators from Yakima and Tri-Cities onboard, but I’m sure those folks would rather see the money spent on highway projects.

    1. The trip currently takes 8 hours by either bus or Empire Builder, so that 8 hour time really isn’t that different than the current options available for non-flying.

      1. The main competition is the personal automobile with a transit time of 4.5 hours and a gas cost of about $25.

        That is where the bar is set.

      2. The obvious place to start is bus service. I was actually on a bus once from Seattle to Spokane that did, in fact, take almost exactly 4.5 hours. The catch was that it wasn’t a scheduled bus. It was a special bus arranged at the last minute because our Amtrak Train got canceled.

        Before we start pouring tens of billions of dollars into new rail infrastructure, non-stop or one-stop Bolt-style services would be a welcome service addition.

  11. @Goyonbeaconhill,

    $200m for an 8 hour trip to Spokane? Pray tell, what would a ticket cost? And what was the projected ridership demand?

    I can drive to Spokane in 4.5 hours for $25 or so in gas costs. I would love a train option, but I would only ride it for fun. It certainly wouldn’t be my first choice from a purely transportation POV.

      1. I remember reading studies on the cross state fright problem, but I don’t specifically remember the passenger problem being addressed. I’d be very interested in how the economics worked out.

        That said, fixing the freight problem by increasing the clearance in Stampede, re activating the Beverley line, and going to directional running would do a lot to improve the passenger picture too.

        Also, will PTC improve things on the Stampede line per it being dark territory? I don’t know enough about the implementation of PTC to know if it still needs a traditional signal system too.

      2. There’s an ongoing problem right now that railroad signalling is overpriced, due to consolidation (== monopoly) in the signal system providers. This can probably be dealt with; resignalling the line should be relatively cheap.

    1. Lazarus,

      I can ride a train to Spokane for $3 for the cost of potato chips. This is the silly train equivalent to the irrelevant comparison of driving cost to the cost of fuel that people who drive use. Unless you stole the car you’re driving it costs WAY more to drive than you’ve calculated.

      The total cost of taking the train – $44.
      The total cost of driving – $166 according to the IRS and AAA.
      The total cost of flying – $78.10.
      Total cost of taking Greyhound – $36

      Total time on the train – 7 hrs 40 minutes
      Total time driving – 4 hrs 11 minutes.
      Total time flying (from downtown to downtown) – 4 hrs 20 minutes
      Total time taking Greyhound – 5 hrs 25 minutes

      Ironically Greyhound is the cheapest and only an hour shorter than flying or driving.
      The train is the most comfortable and very near the same price as the bus but takes much longer.
      Flying is near the fastest and half the cost of driving (for one person).

      Driving never has any clear advantage anywhere unless you have a bunch of people in the car. Only when you have at least 3 people in the car is it cheaper than flying. You have to have 4 people for it to equal the cost of the train and 5 to be better than the bus.

      Why do we keep having to rehash how much it actually costs to drive? You’d think this would become common knowledge (outside of business accountants) at some point.

      1. @grant,

        Ya, but that isn’t the way the calculation is done, and it certainly isn’t the way most people approach making the decision about whether to fly, ride or take the train.

        Many of the costs of car ownership are sunk costs. Once a person owns a car, licenses it, buys insurance and pays to have it housed, the actual use of the car is relatively inexpensive – just fuel and maintanence. And maintenance really isn’t that much on a modern European or Japanese car.

        So….8 hrs on the train vs 4.5 in the car? $25 in marginal costs to drive vs…what…$100 on the train? And if you take the train you still need to rent a car once you are there because E.Wa is still spread out and most people don’t actually live in the city?

        Good luck.

      2. You are of course cutting out the convenience factor (snow conditions aside), which is that driving lets you go when you want and where you want (which isn’t to the Spokane airport or train station or bus station), while all the public forms of transportation run on limited schedules.


      3. The total cost of taking the train – $44.
        The total cost of driving – $166 according to the IRS and AAA.
        The total cost of flying – $78.10.
        Total cost of taking Greyhound – $36

        Total time on the train – 7 hrs 40 minutes
        Total time driving – 4 hrs 11 minutes.
        Total time flying (from downtown to downtown) – 4 hrs 20 minutes
        Total time taking Greyhound – 5 hrs 25 minutes

        As much as we would also like to believe otherwise, the sad reality is that one has to factor in the time and money cost of local transportation for train a bus as well, not just planes. If local transportation means the choice of an additional $20 + 20 minutes or $2 + 60 minutes, on both ends, that quickly tips the scale in favor of driving. Especially if driving allows for some kind shortcut that avoids downtown altogether (for instance, a trip from Lynnwood to Spokane could take 405 to I-90 instead of I-5 to I-90).

        And, of course, if transportation on the other end requires a rental car, then the costs of not driving your own car go way up.

        A few years ago, I actually did travel to my family from Seattle to Glacier National Park by train, renting a car at the train station in Montana at the other end. The only reason the train made any kind of financial since was that I didn’t already have a car sitting around, so it was strictly a question of renting one here or there. Given that we were going to need to pay for a rental car anyway, avoiding the 10-hour drive was a nice convenience, even if the train fare may have costed a little more than a couple extra days on the rental car. On the other hand, if I did have a car sitting around, then the entire week-long car rental, plus the train fare for 3 people, would have had to be compared against just the cost of gas + wear/tear for one car. Suddenly, taking the train starts to look a whole lot more extravagant.

      4. Total time taking Greyhound – 5 hrs 25 minutes

        I must have selected the wrong day. When I checked the only options listed on either Amtrak or Greyhound were 8 hour trips, including Amtrak’s thruway buses.

      5. What’s really sad is the way lazarus and asdf2 do their accounting…
        (and unfortunately most of the driving public)

        When I left the auto industry (OEM, and private), my life lesson was –
        If the salesman’s or service manager’s lips were moving, – THEY’RE LYING !

        Still to this day, I do all my own work on my cars, and rarely purchase one. Even on the more modern vehicles.

        I moved into computer programming (i.e. what we called software engineering on the big mainframes… back in those days), my life’s lesson from that was –
        Don’t Trust SOFTWARE!

        Most is crap, most apps are buggy… strangely enough, the one group of software products I do trust is the embedded software. The stuff installed in things like Automotive Engine Management systems.

        If I had stayed in the automotive field, I could have made a mint on people who do their transportation calculations the way you do.
        I just couldn’t lie EVERY DAY… just when I went on Interviews when I was in IT. (Because we all know, the only way to get a decent raise in pay/conditions was to jump ship)

        You are rationalizing the choice to drive, not making a valid accounting decision.

        AAA puts the marginal costs per mile at $.18. However, if you choose do drive everywhere it can affect your trade-in/resale value… by up to $.07 mile. (the difference between a low mileage church car, and a modern commuter/vacation car) That 290 mile trip to Spokane can run $60 in marginal costs or higher, not just ‘$25 in gas’, lazarus.

        However, having worked the other end of the automotive spectrum – aftermarket parts sales, I can see how people think maintenance costs are so low, by the types of repairs they needed to do, and the overall condition of their cars. (i.e. Beaters… )

      6. The marginal cost, if they’ve done their calculation correctly includes depreciation. At 18 cents per mile that works out to $50 which is roughly equal to a the cost of a bus or train ticket. The train is at a gawd awful hour and adds three hours to the trip. The only way to change that is to run another train. The marginal cost of that is huge. If there was anything else along the way, as there is for Cascades then maybe in would be worth talking about. What you’ve neglected in the marginal cost is if two people are in the car the cost essentially drops in half. Mostly it’s families driving over the pass at holidays or students. Students have a plethora of options for ride sharing such that even if you don’t own a car there should be no problem finding someone looking for help with gas money.

        If there is money to be made Bolt bus will introduce service. That won’t happen if the demand is only around the holidays.

      7. So….8 hrs on the train vs 4.5 in the car?

        The relevant comparison for many people, including me, isn’t 8 to 4.5, it’s 4.5 to 0. Like an increasing number of people, I have work I can do anywhere and everywhere. I also enjoy numberous leisure acivities–watching TV and Movies, reading, napping, etc, that can be done on a train, but not while driving. I can spend the entire train ride being productive, or amusing myself, in ways that a car cannot.

        I’m a busy person; I don’t have 4.5 hours to give to a car. Train time isn’t lost time.

  12. At one time in the past WADOT explored having a train from Seattle to Spokane via Stampede Pass. As I recall they determined it would be successful. We really need a daylight Spokane to Seattle train

  13. I’m not sure I understand the argument – is it that planes are full, so people have no choice but to drive? That just isn’t true in my experience flying there. There are many seats available to fly from SEA to GEG almost every day of the week. For $150 or so (booking ahead a few weeks, $200 if I want to go tomorrow), I can take transit to SeaTac, board a flight, and be in Spokane in about 3 1/2 hours total door-to-door, allowing for getting to SeaTac 1 1/2 hours early,

    How is a train going to compete with that? Wouldn’t a train be more expensive and take much longer than 3 hours?

    1. I agree with this. I always fly to Spokane and its reliable and easy. Stop with unrealistic train and tunnel nonsense.

    2. I think your math needs some work. It takes 40 minutes to get to Seatac plus the 90 minutes you said you’d get there by, 60 minutes for the flight. You’re at 3 hrs 10 minutes and you’re still sitting on the tarmac. When I do this run it takes about 4 hrs 20 minutes downtown to downtown and I’m squeezing a bit making people I travel with a bit uncomfortable.

      A train from Seattle to Spokane could do it in that amount of time for less money but only if there were MAJOR infrastructure improvements and it went through Stampede pass tunnel.

      With current equipment and operating processes it would probably be more like 6 hrs. At 6 hrs it would still be competitive due to it costing half as much as flying, is hassle free (no, light rail transfers, standing in security lines, boarding, deboarding hassles and being stuck in a tiny seat).

  14. Because WSDOT had an existing plan for improving the AmtrakCascades corridor in 2009 when the ARRA legislation was passed, WSDOT was able to get about $800 million to improve passenger train service between Blaine and the Columbia River. Because Oregon hadn’t done much preparation and didn’t have a solid plan ready, ODOT got diddly-squat (basically some money to fix roof leaks in Union Station-Portland). If WSDOT were to start making some solid plans for East-West passenger service, it might be possible to get some federal funds for the project. But without an existing plan, WSDOT won’t get any money from the feds for another east-west line.

  15. Or we could just have more thorough tire inspections and more modern restrictions on whom can cross the pass during snow events and require mountain snowflake tires to cross during winter months. All season and summer tires are still “traction tires” in our states outdated laws, even summer specific tires will pass if you have awd/4wd which does nothing to prevent most issues with winter driving with the wrong tires. The problem is not typically capacity and the delays due to avalanche control are minimal. While we do need to improve public transportation the issues surrounding this holidays issue were completely based around ill prepared drivers getting into accidents and blocking traffic. This exact issue is well documented in the WSDOT Winter Driving Brochure.

  16. I don’t think any expensive rail investment will be viable unless it serves multiple trip ends and probably relieves freight demand. It’s not like building a highway connection; it has to be a part of a larger system.

    Olympia near the Capitol (not Yelm)? Cruise ships? Direct to SeaTac?

    Perhaps we would do better to invest in a major speed upgrade to the Cascades corridor and through the Columbia gorge – and let these few weeks a year with disruption be handled through Portland or by air with some sort of state-subsidized temporary air shuttle.

  17. Nice article. Unfortunately, I don’t really see it as a value proposition – Spokane isn’t all that big, is pretty far away, and there isn’t much between Seattle and Spokane to generate traffic.

    The ski train idea sounds nice, but I’m skeptical about demand and logistics. Personally, if I’m going to or across the mountains – I probably need a car for whatever I’m doing anyway. The car train is an interesting idea, but seems like it would add so much travel time and cost, I’d be better off just going through PDX if the passes are closed.

    I’d much rather see those millions put into improving rail service between PDX and YVR – if you want to free up airport space, think about replacing those flights and Alaskan can always add more GEG flights if demand warrants.

  18. The first and cheapest thing to do would be to add capacity to the existing train. If the sleeper is going for $750, you know the train is nearly sold out.

    There are a fair number of ex-Santa Fe “Highliner” series cars that are stored out of service. This is the same car design that was rebuilt to produce Amtrak’s “Pacific Surfliner” series of car. Those stored cars could be rebuilt into Superliner compatible cars owned by the state of Washington.

    If using cars from the 1950s in current service seems strange, take a look at the fastest growing Amtrak regional service. For several years it was North Carolina’s state services, and all of the cars owned by the state are from the 1950s. It’s not the most desirable way to do passenger service, but it is cheaper than new equipment.

    As an alternative, lease cars from Alaska Railroad, Royal Caribbean, Holland America or Rocky Mountaineer (though there are some issues with the Rocky Mountaineer equipment, they are close by and could almost be used in Amtrak service as-is). All of those operations have spare equipment during the winter months.

    State funded additional passenger cars on the end of the Empire Builder would offer an additional benefit: originally Spokane had overnight cars that were local to the region. When the trains were combined there at midnight the local cars were set out during switching moves, and the Spokane passengers could depart at their convenience. State of Washington cars could restore this service.

    It wouldn’t be ideal, but I don’t think there is any willpower to invest in anything better than that at this point. Look at Cascades service: it could easily support better service than it is currently getting, but the willpower to actually do what is necessary to get that service up and running just hasn’t been there. If the willpower isn’t there for a far more promising and crowded corridor I don’t see how it is going to be there for any of the east-west service.

    1. The set-out sleeper idea might work if the train arrived at 400am, but current schedules show the Seattle section arriving at 1245am and the Portland section arriving at 1213am. The set out cars would need to be removed from the trains and hooked up to an external power source (do-able), but Amtrak might require an attendant for security and safety reasons (might be a deal breaker, due to cost). Interesting idea, though.

      The best solution would be for someone to re-open the old hotel across the street from the Spokane depot and focus the business plan on catering to rail passengers.

      1. The switching part of it has to be done anyway when they combine the Portland and Seattle sections.

        When they did Spokane set-outs on the pre-Amtrak Builder, they would have had yard power units that plugged into the side of each car. It helps because you don’t have to have to wait for it to be safe to go between cars. If these were specially rebuilt for WashDOT then you could put yard power on the side of these cars and have that be the starting point for feeding power to the rest of the train. It makes it a bit less time consuming to deal with the connectors between cars.

        When the did the set-outs, the end car was always a sleeper-lounge onservation, and that car would have a full time sttendant. This attendant would shine the shoes of the passengers, cook for them in the very small lounge kitchen, make the beds, and make sure nobody gets killed getting off the train. As the sleeper passengers paid a premium for that level of service, the attendant wasn’t necessarily an expense.

        Not sure if it could be made to work today or not.

        I do agree that Spokane’s “Inland Empire” has become more of an Inland Fifedom. It would really be nice if there were some other population center on the other side to send trains to, so that a second train could draw on more population. Is there enough demand between Spokane and Calgary for a train to be worthwhile up that way? That’s really the only substantial population center anywhere near to being on the other side.

    2. Don’t forget, there are two more new Talgo trains built for improved rail service Wisconsin which the Governor scuttled. They’re now sitting in Amtrak’s yard near Indy awaiting the highest bidder. AND, don’t get your hopes up that ANY legislator from east of North Bend would EVER vote for improved Amtrak service or add tolls on the passes and Columbia River bridges along the lines of ferry tolls here in Pugetopolis.

    3. Errrr: Pacific Parlour Cars, not Pacific Surfliner cars.

      Someone far more familiar with the retired and sold off Amtrak fleet told me there were something like 40 or so of those “highliners” still in storage at a car shop in Illinois.

      1. Their existence pops up on “foamer” sites from time to time. Amtrak let them go nearly a decade a go; one shudders to think what condition they might be in after zero maintenance on 5o+ year old equipment. The 4 Pacific Parlour cars, which ARE fairly well maintained, have more than their share of “issues” – substitutions are more frequent than desired.

      2. One of the problems there is the quantity of them. The regular superliners are able to be swapped out for the occasional heavy overhaul and nobody notices a different superliner coach. I don’t think they have enough Pacific Parlour cars to be able to do that without substituting something else. There are five Pacific Parlour cars in service and just the FRA cumulative inspections require that there be no spare car for 4 months out of the year.

        Of course, it would be nice if there were a facility someplace on the west coast that could do more than just running repair work. Even the Alstom facility in Mare Island, California is more of a running repair shop than a place that can do heavy equipment repairs or overhauls.

        The basic frame of the car is stainless steel, and that is pretty much the only thing that gets saved in a heavy rebuild. It is also solid enough that there isn’t too much that goes wrong with it. Inspect the welds before selecting which cars get rebuilt and make sure you start with something that is worth the time and money. You basically get a new car, but you’ve saved the non-trivial cost of building a completely new stainless steel frame.

        Unfortunately, Amtrak is rarely granted the funds in and of itself to do this level of rebuild work on its cars. They typically get funding for ongoing maintenance or they get money for completely new cars. So, the cars aren’t given this level of rebuilding when they deserve it.

        North Carolina, on the other hand, figured they saved quite a lot of money by completely rebuilding their 1950s cars. It’s still an expensive proposition, but it was supposedly cheaper than getting new cars, especially considering that they only have a small fleet and nobody wants to build a small fleet of cars.

      3. It would be nice to have parlour cars on the Empire Builder. I think I spent most of my time in the Pacific Parlour car when I took the Starlight from LA.

  19. There are already plenty of options across the Cascades and they’re called Horizon flights. Outside of getting people to Leavenworth and Wenatchee, a new rail line or even increased service along the existing line would be a tremendous waste of money. It’s just too sparsely populated. There will never be any large metro areas along those lines within the protected wilderness of the mountain range. And I can’t imagine there will be any major increase of population anywhere across the middle of the state as it’s all agriculture (and should probably stay that way) Additionally, unless it’s a 250+ MPH rocket train all the way to Spokane, the trip will never be practical for anybody who’s on a schedule.

    Invest the money on a high speed line to Portland if anywhere.

    1. @Gregg,

      Concur 100%. Improving Seattle-Portland and Seattle-VanBC should be way higher rail priorities than anything passenger related on Seattle-Spokane.

  20. Washington is a large state and the middle is fairly sparsely populated. Which makes me wonder how useful any option besides driving and flying would be.

    It reminds me of when I lived in upstate NY. Going between Buffalo and NYC, the main options were flying, Amtrak, and driving. Flying usually won because I’m the only driver in my family and I’m not a huge fan of 6+ hour drives. The train was relatively convenient, except it went the long way around in order to hit Albany.

    I also lived in central NY, far enough south of Syracuse that getting to the train or airport wasn’t a convenient option. I tried the bus once, which involved a connection in Binghamton. Going to NYC there were maybe 10 people on the bus. Coming back, I was literally the only passenger leaving Binghamton. There would have been a second passenger, but he apparently didn’t hear the boarding announcement at Binghamton station. Bus driver and I got to have a nice long conversation. Every other time I drove since I didn’t really care for the infrequent bus.

    In both cases, if there was a high-speed train I would have taken it. If there was a frequent bus that didn’t involve a long connection, I would have taken it. But in that part of the state, there just didn’t seem to be enough demand for either. Likewise, I don’t see there being a huge demand for travel across the Cascades. And what demand there is will probably choose a plane for speed, or a car for flexibility.

    1. Part of the reason people drive is there has been no several-times-per-day transit since probably the 1950s, so people have gotten used to driving and not having other options. Europe would have trains and/or buses at least every 2-3 hours, not once a day or twice if you’re lucky. The US dismantled its comprehensive transit and made the country car-dependent. It takes time for people to respond to new travel modes, so you suddenly fill in the missing transit, it would take a decade or two or three to become well-used, as people one by one try out the new mode for their yearly, half-yearly, or monthly trips, and then start thinking of other trips they could take, and children who have a different attitude grow up and go to college.

      1. Lots of senior citizens, too. Most if not all counties provide local public transportation (van pools) for senior citizens.

      2. Europe would have trains and/or buses at least every 2-3 hours, not once a day or twice if you’re lucky.

        Europeans Have More Cars per Person than Americans

        Spokane is a city of 210k 300 miles from anywhere on the border of flyover land. The density of France is 3X that of the United States. Most of western Europe is 6X and even the Ukraine has 2X our density. Yet for all that density they still move the majority of their freight by truck instead of rail. Go figure?

      3. Bernie, Europeans actually move the majority of their freight by barge. That’s one of the major differences. We don’t have much barge freight here because the rivers run the wrong direction.

      4. Making better use of Europe’s waterways
        Barges are amongst the most climate-friendly and energy efficient forms of transport but currently they only carry about 6% of European cargo

        Once again the europe through rose colored glasses. Certainly we should look and learn from how other parts of the globe function. But even if they do have something that works well for them it doesn’t mean it will scale well for the US.

        As for barges they are just like small container ships. Very efficient but they don’t go the last mile, or in most cases the last 1,000 miles. WSDOT has been doing a fair deal to improve barge traffic on the Columbia which is the only route we have. It’s dandy for wheat. Also really good for coal which sort of defeats the whole “climate-friendly” thing.

        U.S. river freight system near breaking point as huge harvest looms

        Shippers look to the rivers to move more freight

        Basicly, we’re kicking their Euro asses on barge traffic too.

    2. In terms of rail routes, the Water Level Route by way of Albany is the short way round. It’s 437 mile from Penn Station to Exchange St. by way of Empire Service trains. The old Lackawanna Route was only 40 miles shorter at 398 miles (from Hoboken) and the old Erie route was longer. The route by way of Albany is faster thanks to longer stretches of straight track and higher built capacity.

      1. Yeah, but if you’re going to Binghamton or Cortland or Ithaca, you want the Lackawanna route.

    3. There is more than enough demand for train service in central NY. I can say this as someone who lives here.

      The problems are… more complicated than that, and relate to the fact that this area is essentially unrepresented in state government due to gerrymandering.

      1. …and Scranton has the same “not really represented in state government” problem in Pennsylvania.

  21. Honestly, for trips like this I tend to think the best use of dollars is to make it easier for people who don’t own cars to use cars. Destination pairs are decentralized enough, and a car is necessary enough at the destination anywhere but Seattle, to make it very difficult to imagine a major transit investment that pencils out. A few more subsidized buses between Seattle and Spokane/Yakima/Tri-Cities/Pullman would be welcome, but they are not going to change the equation.

    The most cost-effective way to reduce carbon impact is to focus on the highest-demand trips… and those are trips inside and between big metros. If WSDOT is going to spend a fortune on serious train upgrades the most cost-effective corridor for them is Cascades (and specifically Portland-Seattle-Vancouver).

    1. David, I tend to agree somewhat. I do think we do need a better passenger rail network from Blaine to Vancouver, WA and from at least Olympia to Seattle to Spokane.

      But I also think there is an option out there…. namely supporting the Washington State Transit Association’s legislative request to “create a new dedicated state source of operating funding for Rural and Small Urban transit districts to provide for regional connections beyond the borders of their individual service areas…. for transit service operated primarily on state highways.”

    2. OK, Dave. However many people have cars available to them…how many pass closures have there been these past few weeks?

      Behind it all, are you also advocating the extra highway lanes to clear present traffic jams, that in a few years will just hold wider traffic jams? Of which would eventually every one of those helpfully extra cars?

      And based on our State’s own history, why would you take it as a given that nobody will ever live in Eastern Washington again? When there was work, people used to. And when there is again, will again.

      Maybe fast and reliable travel immune to stormy winter skies or snowpiles of highways will help with some serious voluntary relocation.

      And please do us and the Governor the courtesy of not bringing this one into any discussion of atmospheric carbon.

      Going over the mountains back when nobody cared about
      carbon- with a whole nearby highway suddenly part of an avalanche-which made the sky blacker.

      The carpet of cars with nothing moving but their engines parts, or one of those giant red and orange locomotives with same number of passengers, all moving.

      Short term, you can make an argument for planes, and local taxis in Eastern towns for people who can’t go by car. Any aviator can weigh in right how much passenger room is left in the sky.

      But there’s none left at all on the highways. A computer mistake is sometimes a machine failure. A pencil? No such excuse!

      Mark Dublin

    3. Is half a billion dollars not enough to help make it easier for people to drive?

      Gee, I’m right there with you… I’m am SO HAPPY to get my gas tax raised (by teachers, no less… according to some… ) to help with the $3 million WSDOT budgets for snow removal each year over I-90.

      Can’t have drivers suffer too much, now can we?

      Or pay the actual cost of keeping the passes functioning.

      1. Nope, just a subsidized Northern Pacific and a subsidized Canadian Pacific. He was simply fortuitous enough to have found a superior route

      2. James J. Hill owned a large portion of the NP. And of course they eventually merged. I’m not aware of any special subsidies the NP got that the GN didn’t. Perhaps you meant the Canadian National? The CN was born out of the govenment purchase of the failing Canadian Northern in the early part of the 20th century. The CP is and always has been a privately owned company. Neither was a direct competitor to the empire that became Burlington Northern and now BNSF.

        I think most people would say the Milwaukee Road over Snoqualmie was the premier east/west route. It certainly was crossing the Cascades. Highly doubtful that route will ever be used for rail again. Almost the entire line from Puget Sound to Montana has been converted to very popular trails. From what I’ve read it’s Achilles heel was just west of the Columbia river around present day Vantage. I believe it also went to Auburn before splitting to Tacoma and Seattle. I don’t know about you but if I’m going to Auburn I’d much rather continue on to Crystal Mountain which didn’t exist in the days of the Milwaukee Ski Bowl (aka Hyak).

      3. “James J. Hill owned a large portion of the NP.”

        He eventually did, yes, after he had built the GN. The NP was a landgrant railroad, enjoying some of the widest grant-corridors allotted to any of the transcontinental lines, whereas the GN was famously built entirely with private capital, purchasing lands from the Federal Government that it sought to develop.

        The CP and the GN were in fact direct rivals, and Hill was a former CP Director who left in a huff. The CP was built with over Kicking Horse and Crowsnest Passes (rather than the lower and easier Yellowhead Pass further north) with the direct goal of preventing American roads from building into Canada. Hill’s Vancouver, Victoria & Eastern subsidiary competed fiercely with CP’s Kettle Valley Railway in the Southern Interior of British Columbia, with numerous parallel lines built in a fierce fight for mineral traffic. The Hill Lines and CP also competed by way of CP’s interest in the Soo Line System south of the Border, which competed with GN and NP in the Granger Market.

        With respect to the Milwaukee Road, while the route has been much mythologized, it was never the premier route. It was always a lesser competitor to the Hill Lines, with NP’s first mover advantage and the Milwaukee’s last-mover disadvantages, and the Empire Builder was the fastest route to the Coast. Milwaukee was able to abandon their passenger service first because they were the last-place player, compared the NP and GN services that lasted to (or beyond) A-day

      4. “James J. Hill owned a large portion of the NP.”

        He eventually did, yes,

        Something like 25% prior to 1920. Eventually the NP was entirely owned by JJ Hill and what has become BNSF..He managed to own just enough that it wasn’t considered a monopoly but still control it’s destiny. JJ HIll and JP Morgan were not on Teddy Roosevelt’s Xmas card list.

        Kicking Horse is so far north I’m surprised to even hear the name. Someday I’d love to get up there and ski but as far as the northwest ports completely irrelevant. As far as I remember the GN preceded the NP and was generously rewarded with alternating sections on each side of the ROW. But land in the middle of nowhere is hardly an operating subsidy. JJ Hill was just much better at being a ruthless businessman than anyone in charge at NP or the Milwaukee.

        All the routes had advantages. the original Stevens Pass route prior to the current tunnel was really tough. The Iron Goat trail is now open for hiking through that cut. Neither Snoqualmie or Stampede required a “do over”. The Milwaukee somehow managed to snake a temporary route over Snoqualmie without a tunnel until it could be completed.

        John F. Stevens was the brains behind the GN crossing of the Cascades. He worked with what he had to get the RR here first. Being first was more important than being better.

        With any pass to choose from the feds built I-90 to Chicago over Snoqualmie. I know rubber tires can pull a steeper grade than steel on steel but it is the lowest pass and the most direct route.

      5. Milwaukee Road may have had last-mover disadvantage, but they also had last-mover advantage.

        The forensic accounting done after the bankruptcy revealed that the Milwaukee Road Pacific Extension was profitable and would have been more profitable if they’d finished the electrification. However, the incompetent Board of Directors had already dismantled the Pacific Extension based on, I kid you not, bad accounting. The expenses of the Pacific Extension had been double-booked for over a decade.

  22. WA State could easily add one additional train to Spokane on the Empire Builder route. the current train leaves Seattle at 4:45pm and can get to Spokane by 11:30pm. The return trip isn’t convient as it leaves at 2:am. if Wa State would fund a train from Spokane leaving at 4:45pm, they could utilize the existing train for a new round trip service.

    Up until 1979, Spokane had up to three Sea to Spk trains. Empire Builder, North Coast Hiawathia and The Expo 74 train.

    1. Hiawatha and Empire Builder were 3 or 4 times a week each until the former was discontinued; the Builder has run daily since then. The Expo Train only ran for a few months in 1974. With that exception, there has not been more than daily rail service across WA since 30 April 1971 which was the last day of 4X daily train service; 2 via Yakima and 2 via Wenatchee, operated privately by BN as a legacy ot the Great Northern and Northern Pacific railway services dating back to the late 19th Century. The Milwaukee Road closed their passenger services west of the Twin Cities in the late 1950s.

    2. Agreed. Just add one more Seattle-Spokane train on the existing track but also get Amtrak to shift the schedule on the Empire Builder so that train can be of use too, the current times are terrible in both directions for Seattle-Spokane.

      1. Due to the single-track nature of the Stevens Pass tunnel and the fact that it needs a “smoke clearance” period after each train goes through, BNSF is *extremely resistant* to adding trains on the route.

    3. I think the Empire Builder is timed for sunrise at Glacier National Park, so that’s where the resistance to a daytime hour at Spokane is coming from. That also means a daytime shuttle is more likely than changing the Empire Builder’s time.

      1. It’s also timed for connections with the eastern trains in Chicago. As a result, the trains that go to Cleveland and Cincinati also call at awkward hours.

  23. Agree wholeheartedly with the need for daytime Seattle-Spokane service. It wouldn’t be time-competitive with I-90 without major rail upgrades, but a Spokane-Pasco-Yakima-Ellensburg-Auburn-Seattle train would tap intermediate markets, like Yakima-Seattle, Pasco-Seattle or Spokane-Yakima, CWU students in Ellensburg, and be more convenient to Tacoma and Olympia. A connecting bus from Lewiston-Moscow-Pullman (Wheatland Express, based in Pullman) to Pasco would provide a more direct option to western Washington from WSU.

    1. The Portland-Spokane section of thr Empire Builder already serves Pasco, but the other intermediate markets mentioned would benefit from Being connected to Seattle.

  24. A few things I’ll add since I run on this route current.

    Stampede Pass doesn’t need to be crowned for Amtrak service. Superliners can and have fit in the tunnel. Most recently in 2011 during the PTC test trains. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GiojJ4ibOaw) The last excursion train (SP 4449 in 2011) had a great dome in the consist which is just a touch shorter than a Superliner. Most likely however, Amfleet or Horizon coaches would be a far better suit for this (or to make it even cheaper, Iowa Pacific could do the run for cheaper)

    Passenger trains will be able to do 59mph in dark territory, though, that would be moot since the track work would most likely make it 79mph or greater.

    The highest speed on the West side current is 40mph for freight just West of Covington to West of Kanasket. There isn’t a lot of straight rail between Auburn and Easton to be honest.

    After Easton, track speed goes up to 49mph until the first small canyon. Amtrak could do 80 on this leg easily enough, it is mostly straight and gentle curvature. The canyon is only a few miles long then goes back up to 49mph into Ellensburg. The curve into the depot at Ellensberg could be modified and made more gentler but since it is coming into a station stop, no justification for that expense.

    Ellensburg into the Yakima Canyon would be good for 79. It’ll be a slow drag once you get into the canyon (25mph to 35mph for freight currently)

    Once out of the canyon into Pomona, there are several areas that Amtrak could run at a faster than us. It is mostly 45mph until Yakima where there is a head end restriction that wasn’t lifted after work to build several underpasses through the town. It is straight enough that 79mph to 110mph is possible from Yakima to Prosser where it dips back down to 30 for the canyon and wiggles until East of Kiona.

    Kiona to Kennewick is all 49mph and a gradual slow down through town across the bridge and into Pasco.

    It takes us roughly 8.5 straight run time Auburn to Pasco. The NCH study shows a 5 hour and 40 minute journey however the times are horribly off are off coming WB. Most likely a typo.

    A lot of double tracking has occurred but the Babb to Fishtrap will still need to be done so the 95 million is still valid.

    As for Stampede, there are a few locations where sidings can be added that were previously taken out by the Columbia Basin Railroad. CTC will be easy to add since the line was previously CTC. Obviously the line will become PTC equipped. Freight traffic runs only eastbound except for a few locals out of Pasco and Yakima which still runs bi-directional.

    For stations, Spokane, Pasco, Yakima, Ellensburg, Tukwila and Seattle would be the choices to capture the most ridership.

    East Auburn station would not be needed and Tukwila Station would most likely be used as the City of Auburn does not want to allocate parking for Amtrak. A new station would be a huge expense, even if it is something as basic as

    The only other thing I could see added is finishing the 3rd main project between Ellingson/Pacific and Kent/James Street. James Street to Black River third main opens next year.

    The cost for the track, crossing, and signal would be roughly $225 million, including station refurbishment at Ellensburg and Yakima and the third track project between Pacific and Kent.

    I’ll go on the assumption that Amtrak will be the service provider for this;

    Now equipment wise with the procurement of the Siemens Charger locomotives (8 for WSDOT), an additional 6 locomotives would need to be purchased – 1 per train, 3 to cover service rotations, 1 in Spokane as a protect engine. With talk of the cab cars leaving the Amtrak Cascade service when the Chargers arrive, they could be used as push-pull service to eliminate turning the train.

    If Amfleet, Viewliner or Horizon (Or Comet) equipment is used, all will require an ADA lift, which all stations have nowadays.

    Horizon cars have capacity for 68 passengers with ADA. I would assume this would be a standard 4 car set (coach, coach, cafe, coach *or business class*). Standard protection would be 4 additional coaches, 2 cafes. Supplement cars could be former NJ Transit Comet cars that are commonly being added to commuter service (Metrolink, UTA Frontrunner, Amtrak Califonria) Using the Amtrak California model, they purchased the cars for $75,000 a piece and was $1.4 million per car to rebuild.

    Anywho, this is far more longer and detailed than I was aiming for. In short, it is doable. It is a matter if Amtrak and WSDOT see it penciling out ultimately and financially speaking.

    Stampede Pass was closed for multiple days due to extreme snow and slides, so something to keep in mind, it isn’t just the roads that can be affected by mother nature.

    1. Deal, Brian. From here on, arrange with editorial staff that any time you need any extra space, a sentence or a whole posting…just take it out of a comment of mine.

      “The whole one” would be majority vote. Isn’t trainload rather than length that determines which train will be side-tracked? Though some information as to Sounder and “freight interference” would straighten out a lot.

      Also: am I wrong that no known railroad ballad ever contained the word “issues?”

      Mark Dublin

    2. Thanks.

      To me, it wasn’t that obvious that the Stampede line was going to get PTC. I figured it is freight only and the hazardous stuff mostly goes on the Columbia River – Puget Sound route. So, I thought they would skimp on that one.

    3. Brian,

      Thanks for the detailed report but my understanding is that the increased height “crowning” is so that BNSF can run double stack containers. If they can’t do that then it’s not a Stevens alternative and they won’t bother to keep it open during the winter. They use it during harvest season but if WSDOT doesn’t get on the ball it could become another bike trail. I’m all for bike trails but I hate to see our few remaining rail corridors lost. Yes, I know they could be reclaimed but that rarely happens. Once closed they are pretty much gone. There will be no passenger service unless BNSF runs this line year round.

      1. Brian,

        That was really interesting.
        Would love to see it saved as a standalone post.

        The youtube videos are pretty stunning.
        The amtrak report was interesting, but focused on the longer line of seattle-chicago, instead of the more useful seattle-spokane.

  25. And BTW, Brian. First-hand information like this is an absolute treasure. Would like to see a lot similar, from you and also drivers and supervisors from ST and KC Metro.

    I’m personally much interested in everything about trolleybuses. Strangely, for something so strange itself, this technology has been operating since the time the coaches actually looked like they recently had reins for steering.

    Difference is, it’s been 25 years since I drove one. Would be really good to have a posting from somebody still driving. But seriously, thanks again.

    Mark Dublin

  26. a crown-cut tunnel and new welded rail over Stampede Pass

    Zack, nice post taking advantage of the freak closure of our mtn passes to stimulate discussion. I’ll note that in the week leading up to xmas we got 25% of an average year of snowfall; and that during an El Niño year! Stevens was open at 2PM so “drivers” were delayed 6 hours on their holiday weekend; unless they were smart and got out of Dodge the night before. Nothing like the gridlock that happened in town during Snowpocolise of 2010 that neutered LINK Light Rail. One does have to question the removal of the snow sheds on I-90. Was that a cost savings decision vs rebuilding them? Anyway, the money line in the post is the work that WSDOT needs to hammer out with BNSF regarding Stampede Pass. It’s a complex issue on a multitude of fronts but how much would the State contribution be for this “give away” to a private for profit corporation be vs the benefit vs say the building of sports stadiums in Seattle? And, as it as turned out so far those sports fans have been the only bright spot in LINK ridership.

    1. ” It’s a complex issue on a multitude of fronts but how much would the State contribution be for this “give away” to a private for profit corporation …”

      The State does a “give away” to the long distance trucking companies in the form of building, maintaining, and most importantly – enlarging, the Interstate/State highway system.

      And, given that Snoqualmie Pass has a destination at the summit, one can say that it’s a “give away” to a ski-resorts, also.
      I found that Stevens Pass has 2500+ parking spots, so one can argue that of the ~4000 vehicles using that pass (WSDOT Traffic Report), half aren’t using Hwy 2 as a through route. I haven’t come up with a solid number for Snoqualmie pass ski resorts.

      WSDOT says 28,000 vehicles go over I-90 at the pass. I’ve also heard (from a WSDOT source) that roughly 2000 people do commute daily over the pass.

      So tell me about this “Give Away” thing..

      1. First let me say that I am in favor of the State pitching in to improve Stampede Pass. The “give away” here though is fundamentally different than throwing money at new roads and snow removal in that I-90 is a public ROW. Any trucking company or individual can use it. KSEA is owned by the Port of Seattle, a public entity and leases space to any airline that wants to do business. The Stampede Pass tunnel is owned by BNSF and they aren’t about to let UP run trains through it. As I said, I think it’s worth WSDOT partnering with BNSF on this but the recipe for the sausage has to be worked out.

  27. By my rough estimates, personal vehicles account for 89% of average weekday trips across the chokepoint of the major passes, with Snoqualmie (15,000) and Stevens Pass (2,000) averaging 17,000 vehicles per day (of course, only a fraction are headed to Spokane, but it’s a rough proxy). An order of magnitude smaller, the 15 daily flights between Seattle-Spokane on Alaska and Delta provide another 1,700 seats. Nearly a further order of magnitude smaller, 4 daily buses provide 200 seats, and the Empire Builder averages just 73 daily Spokane passengers from all stations between Seattle/Portland and Chicago.

    I think a better SWAG would look at I-90 being a route to Chicago. Look at the number of passengers out of KSEA bound for O’Hare. Take that vs the number to KGEG to approximate the number of people driving over the Pass with destination Spokane. Whatever it works out to the numbers are astoundingly low. The primary reason I-90 exists is for freight transport. And that’s what drags passenger transport to a crawl. Put the majority of that freight on rails and I-90 as it exists today would be more than fine.

  28. So, can anyone tell me which airports were built by the airlines?

    Do airline fees fund the expansion of airport facilities?

    1. Jim, good points. A venture capitalist hoping for landing fees and concessions to pay him back is currently cheerleading the (fill in the blank) scheme to put a commercial terminal into Paine Field. Which was a WWII USAAF training base, but according to WikiPedia, “was originally constructed in 1936 as a Works Progress Administration project. At the time of development, it was envisioned that the Airport would create jobs and economic growth in the region by becoming one of the ten new “super airports” around the country.”

      SeaTac, according to WikiPedia, “was built by the Port of Seattle in 1944 after the U.S. military took control of Boeing Field in World War II. The Port received $1 million from the Civil Aeronautics Administration to build the airport and $100,000 from the City of Tacoma.”

      For Spokane International – again, according to WikiPedia,

      Known as Sunset Field before 1941, it was purchased from the county by the War Department and renamed Geiger Field after Major Harold Geiger, an Army aviation pioneer who died in a crash in 1927.

      During World War II, Geiger Field was a major training base by Second Air Force as a group training airfield for B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bombardment units, with new aircraft being obtained from Boeing near Seattle. It was also used by Air Technical Service Command as an aircraft maintenance and supply depot; Deer Park Airport and Felts Field were auxiliaries.

      Geiger was closed in late 1945 and turned over to War Assets Administration (WAA), then transferred to Spokane County and developed into a commercial airport. The airport hosted USAF Air Defense Command interceptor units during the Cold War for air defense of Hanford Nuclear Reservation and Grand Coulee Dam. Built in 1942 as the Spokane Air Depot, Fairchild Air Force Base is four miles (7 km) to the west.

      It became Spokane’s municipal airport in 1946, replacing Felts Field, and received its present name in 1960, after the City of Spokane was allotted Spokane Geiger Field by the Surplus Property Act.[5] The airport code is still GEG, for Geiger Field.

      Yup, military-industrial complex handing down to civilian use. I hope you don’t mind me using WikiPedia so… liberally.

      1. military-industrial complex handing down to civilian use.

        So, what’s your point, we should have stayed out of WWII? That somehow that would have frozen time and passenger rail would have never declined following it’s hay day? Envision this; the US rejects building airports after WWII. Europe instead builds airports and has no passenger rail. Oh wait, Europe has some of the busiest airports in the world. Maybe, just maybe it has something to do with size and density and there really isn’t a one size fits rail.

      2. Bernie, my point is that THE GOVERNMENT and NOT the airlines paid for the major airports in this state. That’s all.

        I’m not against what happened post-WWII, handing down the airports for commercial traffic. But I certainly think we need to ask ourselves whether or not it’s a grand idea to build a commercial terminal at Paine Field… there is way too much Everett-Paine Field and Everett-Seattle traffic as-is.

      3. Joe,
        Now you really have me confused. Although that’s not in it’s self all that hard. IIRC you’re a major cheer leader for high capacity transit to Paine Field. Now you’re saying that shouldn’t be a default overflow hub when KSEA reaches capacity? WTF, Over.

      4. Bernie;

        There is enough at Paine Field to justify a lot more buses. I am not so sure about light rail for Paine Field.

        I believe the next overflow airport for SeaTac should be Arlington or Skagit Regional. Let’s not send commercial airport traffic through the same roads at the same time already plugged with traffic from north of Paine Field to Paine Field & Seattle. Let’s not put Paine Field – an airport of potential national aerospace significance – at risk. Let’s not screw up keeping Boeing & Future of Flight at Paine Field.

    2. What’s love got to do with it? Yes, the money airlines pay the Port of Seattle are a huge part of their revenue source. The Port also extorts a fair deal of tax dollars via property taxes. Do you think Seattle’s economy would be better off if we put up a closed sign at Seatac and put up a sign that said “Moved to King Street Station.”

      The point being, you build an airport to attract airlines. BNSF in contrast already has a monopoly on rail ROW from the ports across the Cascades. The outrage over subsidies is amusing given that the commenters are trying to justify tourist rail.

      1. There is enough at Paine Field to justify a lot more buses. I am not so sure about light rail for Paine Field.

        I believe the next overflow airport for SeaTac should be Arlington or Skagit Regional. Let’s not send commercial airport traffic through the same roads at the same time already plugged with traffic from north of Paine Field to Paine Field & Seattle. Let’s not put Paine Field – an airport of potential national aerospace significance – at risk. Let’s not screw up keeping Boeing & Future of Flight at Paine Field.

        Joe,
        I responded too quickly to some of your posts. I should have instead taken the ST approach of studying it for years :=. The debate over where the overflow airport(s) to KSEA will be is important to nail down before billions of dollars are wasted on light rail to nowhere. Fact, everybody is a NIMBY when it comes to siting the next regional airport.

        If the light rail “spine” is to serve Paine Field then it has to accept the responsibility of being the next regional hub. Arlington doesn’t work. Moses Lake with high speed rail is a joke that isn’t even funny. Bellingham is a no go. The wild card that nobody talks about is McChord Field. Color me optimist but I think we might just be able to scale back “offense” spending in the next 25 years. We will still need a military airlift facility (which is what McChord is, not a SAC base) but it could be a commercial hub airport and enhance the military mission as a supply depot.

        The downside of world peace for Everett is they loose the carrier home port. Military industrial complex spending is really the only thing that’s offset the loss of timber and industrial jobs in Everett. Otherwise it would be Detroit West. Well, other than being a bedroom community to Seattle/Redmond/Bellevue.

      2. Bernie;

        Don’t worry we all reply too soon from time to time.

        I do kinda agree light rail to Paine Field is being used to induce getting a passenger terminal by saying, “Look see… all this unused Paine Field station capacity when shift workers are working!”

        I do believe Arlington Airport with a major park & ride + I-5 close by can handle a 2-5 gate passenger terminal for Q400s & 737s. Plus Arlington would probably welcome the jobs and there would be little implosion of property values – unlike Mukilteo, which had development & encroachment due to a Mitigated Determination for Paine Field to keep out commercial traffic. Losing all that property tax revenue will hurt Snohomish County and Washington State…

        As to military spending, let me just say it’s hard for me to be critical of nonnuclear military spending with an undeclared war on ISIS (formerly a declared war on al Qaeda). OK?

        As to Everett economic life, let’s just say Paine Field is helping Everett a lot. The Naval Home Port Everett is also helpful.

      3. “The point being, you build an airport to attract airlines.”

        True that.

        You want to build a passenger only line to an existing airport [Paine Field] but you don’t want to attract airlines? Sounds a lot like I want my easy commute but by gawd we don’t want no stinking development out here where I moved to to be away from it all.

      4. Bernie;

        There are many tenants around Paine Field that need transit services. Boeing, Future of Flight, several flight schools, Historic Flight, several aircraft manufacturing shops including one remanufacturing 737s for Southwest Airlines, Flying Heritage Collection, and more. Then there’s Mukilteo.

        Not every airport is the same………………………………..

        I also quite frankly until I see the bus lines and the plan to feed the light rail station(s) am cool on giving Paine Field light rail.

  29. Zach, I think you have just seen a ginormous problem within the transit advocacy community of this state:

    *Most are Seattle-centric, but understandably so

    *Most don’t get that Seattle-centric transit advocates need to continue to think on a statewide level

    *Most don’t get that transit advocates who can get more state legislators to at least listen are going to make it easier for the state legislature and WSDOT public servants to help all of us out

    There you go. That’s my assessment, now if you’ll excuse me I have to get ready to go catch a bus to get to a city park to watch the sunset….

  30. If you want to think BIG, reopen the Snoqualmie Pass railroad route, last used by the Milwaukee Road. It was profitable until it was shut down due to bad accounting (really); it avoids all the flood-prone shorelines on the Seattle-Everett route; it could be owned by the state and give priority to passenger trains.

  31. An idea I always had was to offer a daily train from Seattle to Portland via Spokane. With only two trainsets required and minimal-to-nonexistent infrastructure modifications, I think that this could be a worthwhile thing to investigate. What does the STB think?

    1. Some detour! But this is actually possible via the Empire Builder, which splits in two in Spokane, with one route to Seattle and the other to Portland. But the hours are really weird.

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