Passenger Rail and Central Washington

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?

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