Why Isn’t There a Seattle-Pasco Train?

Whenever the discussion about an east-west train in Washington State comes up, it usually revolves around a Seattle-Spokane route. Outside of the Puget Sound area, Spokane is the largest metro in the state, so it only makes sense that this is where an east-west train would need to go. However, often overlooked is the Tri-Cities, which just happens to be the 2nd largest metro on the east side of the state.

Back in 1971, when Amtrak officially took over the passenger rail network in the United States, the Empire Builder served as an east-west rail link for Washington State. Unlike the modern version, the Empire Builder back then ran between Seattle and Spokane via Ellensburg and Pasco. (The train was not branched in Spokane at this time). 10 years later, Amtrak went through and changed the Empire Builder to run the same as it had before Amtrak took over, with the train branching in Spokane and one half going to Seattle via Wenatchee and Everett and the other half going to Portland via Pasco and Vancouver. 1981 ended up being the last year that Yakima and Ellensburg had passenger rail service.

The issue we have presently is that there is a latent demand for more east-west passenger rail service in Washington, but there are a lot of challenges both infrastructurally and financially that have to be dealt with first.

In Washington, there are three east-west rail lines crossing the Cascades. The northern-most and busiest is the Scenic Subdivision (Seattle-Everett-Wenatchee). Currently, this crossing is operating at a full capacity of 28 trains a day. Due to the design of the Cascade Tunnel and the necessary ventilation of it, capacity on this line cannot be increased without major investment. On the south end of the state is the Fallbridge Subdivision (Portland-Vancouver-Pasco). Running at near-full capacity, this line is often used as a reliever for slower freight traffic that would otherwise be using the Scenic Subdivision. This is also where the Portland branch of the Empire Builder runs, giving the Tri-Cities it’s only passenger rail connection. Lastly, there is the Stampede Subdivision (Auburn-Ellensburg). This line is notable as the quietest Class I rail subdivision in the state, and there’s a big reason for that: Stampede Tunnel. Unlike the Cascade Tunnel, the Stampede Tunnel cannot be used by “double-stacks” due to a low clearance. Because of that, the line isn’t very useful for freight traffic. Back in 1984, the line was mothballed by Burlington Northern as it was considered redundant. However, they later reversed their position due to increasing freight traffic and in 1996 the line was reopened. (The line was also temporarily mothballed in the mid-2000’s, though it’s not entirely clear why).

Ignoring the fact that it is the most direct route between Seattle and Pasco using the Stampede Subdivision (and Yakima Valley Subdivision between Ellensburg and Pasco) makes sense due to the low traffic volumes currently using the line. I don’t know the exact figures, but presently it appears the BNSF is mainly using the line to send empty freight trains eastbound, along with a little localized freight traffic. Neither the Scenic nor Fallbridge Subdivisions (and their connecting subdivisions) have any room to add an additional scheduled passenger rail service without major and costly infrastructure investments. However, the Stampede/Yakima Valley route does have some drawbacks. Between Ellensburg and Yakima, the line spends about 11 miles snaking its way though the Yakima River canyon. With no other alternative for a route between Ellensburg and Yakima, trains will be stuck on this slow piece of track. Track improvements could possibly bump up the speed limit to 50mph at best, but again that comes down to the cost of investment. Due to deferred maintenance, there are also multiple “slow orders” on the route, mostly on the Stampede Subdivision. Another problem is that much of the line is “dark,” meaning it runs under a Track Warrant Control (TWC) system. Under TWC, train movements are dictated via dispatch and orders are given out via radio. At the sidings along the line, there is Centralized Traffic Control (CTC), or signals, installed. If traffic on this line were to increase, it would likely require the installation of CTC along the entire length, which once again is contingent on the cost to install it.

Once all the issues with the track were sorted out, we would still need to figure out how the train would be operated. Perhaps most importantly, that would mean funding an actual train to use. As it stands right now, Amtrak’s fleet runs with about 87-88% of their fleet in service during peak demand, with the rest in maintenance. We have to assume that there are no spare cars to use for a Seattle-Pasco train, thus new ones would have to be built. However, it is worth noting that there are two Talgo trainsets sitting in Wisconsin awaiting their fate. (They were intended for the Hiawatha service, but politics got in the way of that.) The Superliner car (the one used on the Empire Builder) would fit in the Stampede Tunnel, so for simplicity we’ll assume that the Seattle-Pasco train would use it. As for a locomotive, that would be much easier to secure as there are multiple types to choose from and no shortage of new ones being built. However, with each Superliner car costing somewhere between $2-3 million and each locomotive costing somewhere between $4-5 million, putting together just one train consist for service every other day would not be cheap. Assuming we would have 2 train consists with 3 cars for daily bi-directional service, we’d still have to come up with at least $24 million to pay for it.

Lastly, we would need to find places to use as stations. On the proposed route, the train would serve the following cities: Seattle, Tukwila, Kent, Auburn, Ellensburg, Yakima, Toppenish*, Prosser*, and Pasco. (*Service may be deferred at these locations.) On the west side of the state, all the stations are operational and updated to modern standards. On the east side of the state is a different story, as Pasco Intermodal Station is the only location open at present. In the case of Ellensburg, Yakima and Toppenish, all three cities still have their original Northern Pacific Depots. In Ellensburg, local efforts have been under way for some time now as they work to restore the depot to its former glory in the hopes that it will eventually become the transportation hub for the area. In Yakima, the depot was last occupied by a restaurant that closed in 2008, but it now sits vacant. When I recently visited a couple of months ago, it looked like the building was still in fairly usable condition. In Toppenish, the old Northern Pacific Depot is now used by the Northern Pacific Railroad Museum. In Prosser, the old Burlington Northern Depot is now occupied by the Prosser Chamber of Commerce/Visitor Information, though it is worth noting that the platform is still in usable condition. At the bare minimum, there would need to be the construction of a platform (along with ADA accessibility) for train service to begin in these cities. In Pasco, the platform would also have to be extended if the train were to be longer than 4-5 cars.

As insurmountable as it may seem, I still think that a Seattle-Pasco train is something that is worth looking into. Something else that is interesting to note is that in Amtrak’s study on the restoration of the North Coast Hiawatha, it was mentioned that unlike the previous iteration of the route, the new version would need to run via Pasco and Ellensburg between Spokane and Seattle. So who knows, there may just be hope as of yet.


3 Comments on “Why Isn’t There a Seattle-Pasco Train?”

  1. How important do you think the connecting service from Pasco to Spokane would be for this route’s success? Based on the current timetable, the Empire Builder’s branch to Portland travels westbound from Spokane at 2:45am to arrive at Pasco at 5:35am. The eastbound train is slightly better at 8:57pm to 12:13am, but that’s still pretty miserable.

    • Zachary says:

      To be honest, I don’t think that a Spokane-Pasco link is absolutely critical for this route, but that’s not to say that it wouldn’t be important in the future. In some previous discussions about an east-west train service, some people have suggested that there should be a single route that would run Seattle-Ellensburg-Pasco-Spokane. Assuming that track conditions stay the same, this would take somewhere between 10-11hrs each way. In the short term, I think that the Spokane-Pasco corridor would be better filled with improved intercity bus service. Currently, there’s only one Greyhound trip (on a Portland-Spokane route) each way daily, with both buses meeting at Pasco just after 2PM, along with the Portland branch of the Empire Builder as you already saw. In the case of the former, not many are going to use it because of the prevalent stigma about Greyhound, while the train isn’t very usable because of the extremely early/late schedules. As it stands, it’s fairly common for people (who have the option) to just drive between the two metros, and I don’t see that changing until a comprehensive network is built in this state.

  2. NW Hogger says:

    The Stampede Sub has been running at capacity since early 2013 with a change in some freight crew routing. Track conditions would be an issue with passenger operations without a great expense on the part of the BNSF.
    The slowdown in mid 2000 was due to a couple of factors, the first being seventy some washouts that required a 10 month shutdown for repairs and then a considerable slowdown in freight traffic.

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