Amtrak Charter in the Yakima River Canyon

For all the technical merits of transportation projects, there’s nothing like a personal stake in the outcome to elevate your interest level. Recently, STB veterans like us have been pulled towards Central or Southeast Washington for various personal reasons. For Zach, it is the possibility that his partner may be taking a job in Yakima three days a week. For Bruce, it was scouting in the Tri-Cities for a place for his Phoenix-dwelling mother to retire a bit closer to her son.

When it comes to transportation options between Seattle, Yakima, and the Tri-Cities, it’s safe to say we have found them wanting. Pasco hosts the region’s only Amtrak station, with daily service west to Portland, and east to Spokane and eventually Chicago, on the Empire Builder. Pasco and Yakima haven’t seen a direct rail connection to Seattle since October 1981, when the Empire Builder switched to a service pattern which splits trains in Spokane, serving Seattle via Stevens Pass, and Portland via the Columbia Gorge. (Somewhat famously, the Yakima alignment was instrumental in helping stranded motorists in the wake of the Mount St Helens eruption.)

Intercity buses from Seattle are limited to twice-daily Greyhound service and the Bellair Airporter shuttles. By air, Pasco Airport is the fourth-busiest in Washington, following SeaTac, Spokane, and Bellingham; the next busiest, Yakima, has about a sixth of Pasco’s traffic and only one destination (Seattle). High base fares on regional flights from Seattle — for example, $97 for the 30-minute flight to Yakima — testify both to robust demand and undersupplied service.

Relative to the rest of interior Washington and the unpopulated expanses of Eastern Oregon, Central/Southeast Washington has a lot of people. After Puget Sound, the Willamette Valley, and Spokane, Yakima and the Tri-Cities are the largest conurbations in the Northwest, with 500,000 people between them. The typical mix of nostalgic railfans and local economic boosters occasionally make noise about restoring rail service, most recently in May:

Economic development, increased tourism, safer passage over the mountains — advocates of train travel have a host of reasons why passenger rail service should be restored to the Yakima Valley after more than 30 years without it.[…]

The goal is to someday re-open passenger service from Auburn to Pasco, going over Stampede Pass south of Snoqualmie. Trains would stop along the way in Cle Elum, Ellensburg, Yakima and Toppenish.

This article doesn’t appear to have made it to the Seattle blogosphere, but the idea seems worthy of west-side discussion, because as potential customers and likely financiers of such a service, it needs to be as valuable to us as it would be to them. The idea of Central/Southeast Washington rail service has some very serious challenges, but it has some things things in its favor, not least among them that the organizers of the recent meeting managed to get state Senator Curtis King to show up:

“I think it’s a relative — I won’t call it a long shot, but it’s going to take a lot of things to line up to make that happen in the near future[…] If it takes you six hours to get over there from Yakima, I don’t think a lot of people are going to do it,” King said. “It’s gotta be timely, it’s gotta be efficient, and it’s gotta be at a cost that people can afford, so there’s lots of challenges.”

Those of us who’ve been around the block a time or two know only too well that getting a transportation project funded has less to do with technical merit, and more to do with which influential politicians you can hook on to your cause; and there’s no bigger fish in our sea than the Senate Transportation Committee Chair. So while the idea has even a smidge of oxygen, let’s give it a hearing. What would it take to get trains from Seattle to Yakima and Pasco?

The first thing to note is that the Seattle-Pasco corridor is intact and in active freight use, so there would be little right-of-way acquisition or new track construction needed to operate passenger service. Operating speeds are generally adequate except for two critical stretches: Auburn to Easton over Stampede Pass, and the 11-mile squiggle of the Yakima River Canyon. Much of the line is also still jointed rail (rather than continuously welded), and the bumpy ride of jointed rail precludes the use of Talgo-style tilting trains, which could travel faster on curvy mountain grades.

The final timetables from 1981 show a 6-hour travel time from Seattle to Pasco, roughly 50% longer than the 4-hour, 225 mile drive. Shorter trips east of the Yakima River Canyon are more competitive, with Yakima to Pasco at 1 hour, 50 minutes, although it remains to be seen whether a Seattle-oriented service could be made attractive for trips within a mosly suburban and rural area. To stand a chance of competing sucessfully with I-90 for “wet side to dry side” trips, any reintroduction of passenger service over Stampede Pass would need to come with substantial investment in travel time improvements.

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The service plans of the Yakima Valley rail boosters seem to extend only to Pasco, but it’s worth putting them in the context of current cross-state surface travel. Seattle to Spokane via Pasco would add about 100 miles and 5.5 hours of travel relative to driving I-90, with the 400-mile trip taking 9 hours (44 mph average). The current Empire Builder travels 326 miles to Spokane in 8 hours (41 mph average). Amtrak’s current choice of route, which trades almost all potential riders in the Yakima Valley for the speed of the northern Columbia Basin, presumably reflects a compelling business case for prioritizing the trips of interstate tourists.

Despite the challenges, connecting the 1 million people of Yakima, the Tri-Cities, and Spokane to the Puget Sound is a worthy goal, and likely a politically popular one: rural legislators covet access to weathy metro areas. If we could escape both the the overriding demands of Amtrak’s long-distance network, and the nostalgia of “restoring service” as an end in itself, what would be the minmum viable cross-state service?

Let’s start with some basic assumptions. The service should run between Seattle and Spokane. It should be state funded, unbeholden to the schedules of Amtrak’s long-distance network. The train should offer daylight service, run seven days per week, require minimal right-of-way acquisition, and be serviced at the Seattle maintenance facility. Capital funds should go primarily into the cost of rolling stock, double tracking, and smoothing curves.

Map by Zach Shaner

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If successfully reintroduced within these parameters, this line would be extremely valuable, plugging the primary gap in intercity transit service in Washington, meaning that every metro area of more than 200,000 in Washington and Oregon would have daily rail service, with good onward bus connections at most major stations (see sample service map below).

washington-intercity-rail-map-01
Map by Zach

WSDOT studied East-West service in 2001, concluding that Talgo-style trains combined with track improvements could yield a Seattle-Pasco-Spokane travel time of 7 hours, 20 minutes  (55 mph avg). Thinking more boldly, a 2007 report by the Washington State Transportation Commission described another project that could do wonders for speeding Spokane service: the Ellensburg-Lind Connector. The Stampede Pass Line converges with the old Milwaukee Road (now John Wayne Trail) in Ellensburg, heads south through Yakima and Pasco, and crosses the Milwaukee Road right of way again in Lind, WA, a few miles west of Ritzville (see map at the top of this post). Re-tracking and rehabilitating that right-of-way for passenger service, on one of the least-used portions of the John Wayne Trail, could cut 2 hours off of Seattle-Spokane service and offer a direct freight connection between Joint Base Lewis McChord and the army’s Yakima Training Center. The likely capital costs would be in the $500m range.

Given these difficult but surmountable realities, here are two sample timetables that would be possible with moderate track upgrades, same-day turnaround service, a single trainset, and overnight maintenance in Seattle.

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Whatever the ultimate outcome, we think that the million people of Yakima, the Tri-Cities, and Spokane deserve an integrated ground transportation network that connects them both to Seattle and to each other.

47 Replies to “Passenger Rail and Central Washington”

  1. A “best” solution might be a 2nd daytime only train on the Builder’s historic corridor, and double daily service on the Yakima Pasco corridor, perhaps one connecting to/from the Builder at Pasco, otherwise morning and afternoon trains in each direction. Expensive? Yup, but think of how much WashDOT spends on plowing and maintenance on those passes and Columbia River bridges, none of which is paid for directly by users. Time for a Mountain/River Fast-Pass perhaps??

  2. For rolling stock, aren’t there a few Talgo trains sitting around from the failed Wisconsin line that our various DOTs could suck up for such a service? Seems like a great opportunity to get trains on the cheap.

      1. Actually, LOSSAN Rail Corridor Agency received grant funds to lease the Talgo sets.

        Just a couple days ago I read that LOSSAN and Talgo were still negotiating the lease, not particularly close to an agreement, and LOSSAN was going to “fish or cut bait” in the next few weeks. Wish I can remember where I read this. I think it was one of the trade magazines.

  3. While I agree it would be awesome to have better rail connections to Eastern WA, I think it should be Eastern WA who pays for it if they want it. Sub-area equity on a state-wide scale. At the moment Western WA deserves and needs a lot more investment.

    As it is now the state has a number of long distance bus lines but the service is confusing to use: http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/transit/intercity

    1. Personal prejudice, barman, but every time I hear “Sub-“, if I don’t hear -“Marine” but rather “-Area Equity”, I think “-Standard.” People who really feel comfortable in small parts of an ever more divided area really have no use for public transit at all.

      My own accounting tells me that I’ll enjoy life more, and earn a better living, the wealthier the rest of the State gets, and the more unified with my side of the mountains. Reading and experience tell me that throughout history, the business community’s balance sheet has heartily agreed.

      Politically, I think that every dime we spend to connect both sides of The Cascades will pay back a dollar toward a Legislature that doesn’t hate either transit or us. Because faster and easier travel will soon result in more young people from here starting businesses and working over there.

      Creating an expanding constituency for candidates whose platforms- political and train- will include more and faster rail transit. Here’s a challenge for you, barman. You concentrate on keeping your community’s wealth to itself, and I’ll pay for your share to the united State of Washington I want.

      Which way are your kids going to run away?

      Mark

    1. Good tip, I totally failed to make the connection with that study.

      We’ll totally loop you in on anything similar we write in future.

  4. This is going to be increasingly difficult to do, as the NextGen Bilevel regional rolling stock (some of which Washington was supposed to get) has been delayed.

    Streetsblog has a nice summary of the difficulty of building railroad passenger cars in the USA.

    1. I don’t believe any of the bi-level regional cars were destined for Washington. For our ARRA money, we got the two Talgo trainsets (actually those were by Oregon) and the new Seimens locomotives.

      1. I received a response to a question I sent to the Washington rail division that included a statement that any future rolling stock purchases they made would be a tag-on order to the Illinois car order. Don’t know if any of that got officially documented anywhere or if that was just the answer of the day/week/month.

  5. Thank you for posting this. Great information and research. I am very passionate about returning regional rail like this.

    Who can we communicate about this? I have zero hope in WSDOT without the support of the Legislature. Do we need to pass a state initiative that forms a new public-funded regional rail authority, like Sound Transit, but for the state?

  6. Great post! I did not know about the historic Empire Builder route through Pasco.

    The same rules of frequent transit corridors apply to intercity transit: higher frequency along a single corridor that serves multiple destinations is better than a plethora of infrequent single-purpose routes.

    If WSDOT can really bring down Seattle-Pasco-Spokane travel times to 7:20, then ALL cross-state services should use that route. It could start with 2 new daily Seattle-Pasco-Spokane round trips, and if Washington ridership on the Empire Builder collapses, it could be rerouted via Pasco also to save 0:40 minutes.

  7. I can see an argument for rail connections between Spokane and Puget Sound, but I would be careful of trying to argue that rail is the solution for the less-dense, smaller cities of eastern Washington.

    I am concerned with promoting too liberal a rail agenda as to distract from and perhaps even make serious rail proposals for the bigger cities be taken less seriously – rail is a crucial part of the transportation mix for dense areas but it is absolutely not a solution for everywhere, especially when demand lacks a key ingredient -density. This is Amtrak’s main problem with it’s long distance network, it’s lack of transit utility for a sufficient population relegates it to functioning as a vacation train for most of its riders – ToD and contemporary transit theory explains that there are diminishing marginal returns when investing in rail where the density of the areas it serves drops off substantially, especially when one of the termini lacks sufficient density and population.

    Most of the cities mentioned here I would argue, lack the sufficient density for rail. For these situations, I think busses are the solution where we should promote more frequent, comfortable, and reliable service. Ultimately, the rail investment should be made where there is sufficient population for trains that will be running at least hourly. When we talk about rail in the Northwest, we have areas that have well-over the population and density that are in much greater need – The Cascadia corridor itself needs more updates, the pocket change invested in it so far will not get it anywhere close to meet the future needs of intercity travel. We need to figure out how we can get a dedicated pair of double tracks between Seattle and Portland first – that should become the intercity rail priority for the region in my opinion.

  8. whats is the difference in cost between updated the rail to class 5 vs updating it to class 7 and having high speed rail. That would allow people to commute for Yakima to Seattle. This would help alleviate some of the housing crunch is Seattle and help with ridership.

    1. Quite a bit of difference (several millions). It isn’t just the track but also requires changes to grade crossing timings and other features that would need to be modified.

      The standard we run out here is Class 4 and 5 track. The Cascade corridor (on the BNSF) is now primarily Class 5 thanks to the ARRA updates. The Lakewood Subdivision is Class 5 (really it could be Class 6 the way it was constructed)

      1. I understand that i was wondering if the had price/mile they use for estimating.
        Miles x Dollars(per)Mile + Crossings x Dollars(per)Crossing

  9. Pasco and Yakima haven’t seen a direct rail connection to Seattle since October 1981, when the Empire Builder switched to a service pattern which splits trains in Spokane, serving Seattle via Stevens Pass, and Portland via the Columbia Gorge.

    That was actually the historic pattern for the Empire Builder. The North Coast Limited was the train that used Stevens Pass. Both survived until 1971 under Burlington Northern.

    When Amtrak started they had to choose between operating one or the other, and tried a mixture of the Empire Builder and North Coast Limited routing. Stevens Pass is slower and more expensive to operate, but has more people.

  10. Why end the train at Spokane? Let it continue to the Windy City via southern Montana and the ex-CB&Q trackage from the Twin Cities! (can you say “North Coast Limited”?)

    1. East of Spokane, population density falls off a cliff. It’s pretty easy to imagine being able to fill up one or two trains daily between Seattle and Spokane via the Tri-Cities. From Spokane to Minneapolis? That’s not going to perform as well.

    2. Coeur d’Alene and Kootenai County (with another 140k people), is the only east of Spokane terminus potentially worth exploring IMO.

    3. Yet the fullest point of the Empire Builder is between Minot ND and Fargo. Montana is no slouch either because you have to go ninety miles south on a north-south bus to get to an east-west bus. I don’t know if southern Montana has less of that effect, but the train is full where no parallel bus is nearby, even when it departs at midnight or four in the morning.

  11. I did my master’s thesis in transportation geography back in 2005 on a ridership analysis between Seattle and Spokane following the 1981 Empire Builder alignment via Stampede Pass, Yakima and Pasco. Beside a couple of key cities the ridership numbers are a struggle. A route like this would require heavy subsidies.

      1. You could do a feeder bus connection for Boise in Tri-Cities; however, from Spokane it geographically challenging.

      2. I guess I was thinking this would terminate in the Tri-Cities because of the congestion between Tri-Cities and Spokane.

        There might be enough capacity on the UP line, but getting over there and then dealing with the UP has its own issues.

  12. I really wish Washington State would get serious about a Seattle to Spokane trip. The Empire Builder leaves Seattle at 4:40 and arrives at midnight – that’s ok, but the Spokane to Seattle trip isnt timed for Spokane customers as it leaves at 2am and who wants to be up at 2am. If you dont want to take the train you really have only one bus option, Greyhound has a Spokane to Seattle bus that leaves at noon. The other buses are not good options. The Trailways bus leaves Spokane in the am and does not take a direct route to Seattle as it follows HWY 2. the 2nd Greyhound leaves at midnight for Seattle. So in reality there is one direct bus. Flying from Spokane to Seattle is frequent but it’s expensive and thus most people drive. Daily train service is a no brainer as youve got a fairly large population along the corridor and then you’ve got the a sizeable population of college students in and near Spokane (EWU, Gonzaga, Whitworth, WSU and Idaho) and Central Washington University in Ellensburg. So the leadership of Spokane and Eastern Washington cities should be pushing the state for rail service between the cities. Who do we need to contact at the state tp make this happen soon

  13. Perhaps a version of the old Amtrak Pioneer route between Seattle, Boise and Salt Lake? Two branches perhaps: via Portland, or through Central Washington via Pasco, Yakima, and Ellensburg? A map of the old route is available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pioneer_(train)#/media/File:Amtrak_Pioneer_1977_map.png.

    The Central Washington route and the Empire Builder’s Portland leg would intersect at Pasco. Beef up service on those corridors (with state sponsored regional trains) and it would allow for transfers.

    1. One of our central contentions here is that we should avoid the legacy burdens of Amtrak, in terms of labor, scheduling, etc. This should be a state-funded and state-managed rail service, even if Amtrak is the contracted operator. Bringing Idaho or Utah into this would introduce the same scheduling issues we have on the Empire Builder. Somebody would get screwed by a 2am departure, you couldn’t do same-day turns, and you’d need extra rolling stock and more complicated labor arrangements, including 4 crews per day instead of 2. Etc etc.

  14. It’s politically advantageous to have inter-city rail service east of the Cascades beyond what Amtrak offers today. More study is needed to see if it’s a worthy investment.

    Because these areas have very few areas that have high density and because there are only a few areas with free or restricted parking, it’s clear that the primary goal would be to provide service for residents of these areas to come into Seattle or reach SeaTac airport. (I would note that Spokane to SeaTac flights are very frequent and fast and not all that expensive). There may be a secondary market to reach Tacoma or Olympia, but that’s about it.

    When I’ve chatted with people who live east of the Cascades, their primary worry is getting across Snoqualmie Pass during the winter and their biggest dread is crossing the pass at any time of the year. Of all of the route design objectives, I would think that this is the most important thing to accomplish.

    With this in mind, I would suggest that any rail line going over the Cascades explore making that leg of rail journey faster — even ending at Ellensburg or Yakima. To make that investment worthwhile and make the travel market attractive, I think that the service would need to offer a trip several times a day — not just one or two.

    Finally, I would include in any project a way to reach SeaTac faster by rail than going all the way to King Street Station. Whether that’s a new station at Boeing Access Road, a Link branch from Federal Way to Auburn (do we really need a train every six minutes to Tacoma if ST3 passes?) or something else, some Link integration would be important. We need to integrate any rail expansion into our existing system rather than design each on their sole merits.

    1. Regarding reaching SeaTac, an airport bus meeting Amtrak trains at Auburn or Tukwila wouldn’t be very expensive. Hell, if Rapid Ride F wasn’t so ungodly slow, you could just interline F-Line and A-Line trips to run Renton to Federal Way, providing the SeaTac/South King Amtrak connection incidentally.

      1. I would agree that a bus could provide the connection. Systemically, I think RapidRide A should be extended east from Federal Way to Auburn for many other reasons in addition to this one.

      2. I would love to have something better between SeaTac and the Tukwila station. It would help get to and from Belair from the north.

        There are already dozens of buses in service between the car rental office and SeaTac itself. The only time I went over there, there must have been close to 20 of them idling at the rental office alone.

        Extend one of those down the hill once an hour or something

    2. I actually don’t think you need density to justify travel in the intercity market, which is fundamentally distinct from the urban market. All you need are enough people to nearly-profitably fill 250 seats a day, a reliable service, and a pain point that incentivizes the modal choice (people hate driving over the pass). There are plenty of people within the I-90/I-82 catchment area to support it…the service just needs to be competitive in terms of time/cost.

      1. I would say that you do need density at one end to make a 100-to-200-mile rail service viable. Spokane to Pasco doesn’t make much sense by itself, for example. Luckily we have plenty of density in Seattle!

      2. I’d phrase my take slightly differently: if one end of your trip is dense (walkable/transitable or at least Uberable), and the train is overall more convenient (or just faster) than driving, you can fill up a viable fraction of an intercity train with people who arrive on cars. You can’t do that with urban high-capacity systems that can move several thousands an hour; that’s the difference between the two, and that’s the reason I don’t dismiss this out of hand.

    3. The state is responsible for basic statewide transportation, and this is arguably basic statewide transportation that should have been kept and improved all along. That’s what European countries have: trains between all its cities both large and small, and stations at airports connecting to the entire country’s network. Since the state would be paying for it, and the state doesn’t care about urbanism or density, it can fund it with money it wouldn’t be willing to spend on Sounder or Link or Seattle anyway. Al S has some good ideas for ways the line could be useful to rural residents, and that also implies ways it could be marketed to the state and to residents.

  15. Very well put together piece.

    My one issue is that I don’t think Seattle should fund this. We have higher intercity rail needs (Cascade corridor). Although personally I’m more interested in: extending Sounder South to Broad St. and Expedia, possibly West Ballard, BAR intermodal station, finding a way to connect the Sounder platforms to King Street Station and International District Chinatown Station.

  16. One really big data set you guys are missing is the ridership info on the Yakima Airporter shuttle that runs from Yakima to Seattle on the same route. It carries tons of people, from elderly people traveling to the airport to students from CWU. Tickets are also pretty expensive, considering. I’ve noticed a huge increase in ridership recently too. Maybe that would also be helpful in convincing Curtis King.

  17. If one of the biggest concerns people have is driving the pass in winter, would a winter only service to start off with be worth considering?

    Rocky Mountsineer does nothing with much of its fleet from November to April, and neither does Alaska Railroad.

  18. “The typical mix of nostalgic railfans and local economic boosters occasionally make noise about restoring rail service, most recently in May:….”

    You are aware that Amtrak Cascades service exists because of efforts of these so-called ‘railfans’.

    Best to cultivate connections with these people, they have good bi-partisan support in Olympia.

    Yes, All Aboard’s membership is older, but they are certainly on the same page as Seattle Subway for instance, if not more progressive.
    Fighting the battle sometimes requires getting into the ‘conservative’ mindset, and seeing the commonalities that can lead to the outcome we’d all like to see.

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