Friends of Transit Washington Passenger Rail MapPosted: January 29, 2014
As I’ve previously covered before here, discussions about creating new passenger rail routes or boosting the availability of current services come up every now and then in Washington State. More often than not, this discussions fade off into obscurity and are forgotten until someone else suggests a similar idea.
A newer transit advocacy group from the Puget Sound area, aptly named “Friends of Transit,” hopes to foster more of these discussions in the hope of achieving the goal of winning a plan for statewide passenger rail. To help those discussions, they’ve published a concept map of what a statewide passenger rail system could look like. (To see the full version, view the .pdf.)
Before I start breaking down all the details and logistics (and some errors) of this map, I will say that it is a good map and it will do just fine to help get the conversation going to boost passenger rail service in Washington State. In keeping with the focus of this blog, I’m not going to spend much time on the details of the map surrounding the greater Puget Sound area and the rest of the I-5 corridor, as that’s more the domain of the Seattle Transit Blog.
To cross the Cascades, the map features the two corridors already being used by current passenger rail services: Cascade Pass (BNSF Scenic Subdivision) and the Columbia River Gorge (BNSF Fallbridge Subdivision). Between Everett and Wenatchee, the map proposes the addition of two new stations at Snohomish and Monroe, which would also be serviced by proposed extensions of Sounder commuter rail. This is just one of several instances where the debate of necessity will come up on this map. On one side, you can say that since the train is already passing by there it only makes sense to add the stations. On the other side, you can say that it would be more worthwhile to invest in more bus service to/from Everett and thus help maintain the schedule reliability of the train. For my part, I would say that it would be best to build the stations in those two cities, but only to have them served by the proposed extensions of Sounder (much like how the map shows service operating between Seattle and Tacoma). Between Portland and Pasco (Tri-Cities), the map again proposes the addition of two new stations at Camas/Washougal and Umatilla, though the latter is actually mislabled. In the case of the former, if there was enough money then by all means build in, but realistically this station is a no-go. It’s actually close enough to Vancouver to be in the C-TRAN service area, and arguably that connection is all that Camas and Washougal need. Further down the line, the map shows a station at The Dalles, but this is a mistake as The Dalles is actually across the river in Oregon, and so it should be labelled as the currently existing stop at Wishram. (As a sidenote, the former Amtrak Pioneer route did stop in The Dalles, which I’ll cover more later.) As already mentioned, Umatilla is also a mislabel on the map. If it were labelled correctly, it would be Plymouth. Once again, it’s arguable as to whether a station would be needed here, as most of the potential ridership base resides south of the river in Umatilla, Boardman, Irrigon, and Hermiston, which would all be better served by another possible passenger rail route that would fall under the domain of Oregon DOT. (Again, more later.)
Finally, there’s the third and last option to cross the Cascades. On the map, a brand new rail line roughly following Interstate 90 is shown accommodating both high-speed rail and local rail. Years ago, the old Milwaukee Road rail line did cover this route, though the only thing remaining today is the railbed, which is now used as the Iron Horse Trail. Currently, there is a rail line over Stampede Pass (BNSF Stampede Subdivision), which is only used sparingly as an overload route to relieve pressure on the Cascade Pass and Columbia River Gorge lines. I discussed in my post “Why Isn’t There a Seattle-Pasco Train?” how it would take significant financial investment to upgrade the Stampede Pass line so that more trains could use it. Though it might seem like a high price tag, it would still be arguably cheaper than building a completely new line over the Milwaukee Road ROW, even if it meant eliminating the proposed stations at Issaquah and North Bend (both cities which are pretty well connected by existing transit service). The proposed station at Snoqualmie Pass (the ski resort) would also be impossible, as the Stampede Pass line doesn’t come anywhere near it. A station in Cle Elum would be possible, though again we come back to the argument of whether the cost is justifiable. Considering it is about 25 miles from Ellensburg and would cover nearby Roslyn and Easton (and could even accommodate a Snoqualmie Pass shuttle), I think it would work out ok.
Next, there’s the two spur lines serving the Okanogan Valley and the Palouse. On the map, the rail line heading north to Omak before Wenatchee is technically correct, but not realistic. As the spur towards Omak joins the Cascade Pass line inside Wenatchee city limits (and less than a mile from Columbia Station), any possible service towards Omak would have to stop there anyways. There would also be a need for a train turnaround, as the layout of the rail lines would leave the train towards Omak heading north with the engine at the back. Finally, out of all the proposed routes on this map, I think the route to Omak would generate the lowest ridership and farebox recovery. Currently, there is an intercity bus service called the Apple Line running one round trip daily between Omak and Ellensburg, serving every city along Highway 97. Rather than spending the money to build the three proposed stations at Chelan, Pateros, and Omak, it would be better to invest in more frequent service on the Apple Line to get it running a minimum of 4 times daily. Over in the Palouse, the map shows a proposed new route that would run from Spokane and serve stops in Rosalia and Colfax (the latter not actually being on the rail line, though the town of Palouse is) before reaching the EOL in Pullman. With WSU being in Pullman, you can argue that there would be plenty of potential ridership on this line. Like the Okanogan Valley line, I question the viability of this route, not for the ridership but for the rail line itself. To get to Pullman, the train would have to travel over rail line that is owned and maintained by WSDOT. In several parts of Washington State, WSDOT has bought up rail lines from bankrupt short-line carriers and mainline carriers that no longer use the lines in the interest of preserving a link for agricultural customers in the area. As these lines only see freight traffic currently, they would undoubtedly be in moderate condition at best, still using bolted rail (versus the welded rail a lot of the main lines are now being upgraded with) and subject to slow orders. Like the Okanogan Valley, there is already intercity bus service between Pullman and Spokane being operated by Northwestern Trailways (2 times daily) and Wheatland Express (1 time daily; 2 times daily on Fridays). Again, it would be more realistic to invest the money on boosting service on the Highway 195 corridor from the 3/4 trips daily to a minimum of 6 trips daily.
Though not a spur line, there is also a local rail route shown on the map that goes from Pasco (Tri-Cities) to Walla Walla before continuing on to Boise. In short, without building a new rail line this route is impossible. While it would be possible to have a passenger train run from Pasco to Walla Walla (though it would be more feasible to boost service on the existing Grape Line route), the rail line south of Walla Walla ends at Weston OR, ending any possibility of connecting with the UP La Grande Subdivision further south at Pendleton OR. If we wanted, we could have a train that goes to Boise (and continues on to Salt Lake City and Denver, and even Chicago), which would likely mean the resurrection of the Amtrak Pioneer route. Before it was discontinued in 1997, the route ran between Seattle and Chicago by way of Portland, Boise, Salt Lake City, Denver, and points between. In a 2008 study on the possible restoration of the Pioneer, it was shown that restoring the route between Seattle and Salt Lake City (with through cars to Chicago joining the California Zephyr) would generate the highest farebox recovery for the lowest operating subsidy, even though it had the lowest possible productivity compared to other long-distance routes at the time. Doing this would be a multi-state effort in collaboration with Amtrak, but as a part of an expanded Washington State passenger rail system it would fill a key part. Note that there would also be the option of taking the train running between Seattle and Pasco (Tri-Cities) and having it continue south to Hermiston and then east towards Boise, but it would require an awkward turnaround movement at Pasco and would require the use of slow rail line from there to Hermiston, so the Pioneer would likely be the best option.
Further east on the map, we have three more lines running between Ellensburg and Pasco (Tri-Cities), Ellensburg and Spokane, and Pasco (Tri-Cities) and Spokane. I won’t spend much time on the Ellensburg – Pasco (Tri-Cities) route, as I covered that pretty well in the “Why Isn’t There a Seattle-Pasco Train?” post I’ve mentioned already. Except for the exclusion of a station at Toppenish (which still has a fully intact NP Depot, though it is being used as a museum) and the necessity of building a new station in Sunnyside (which might not be entirely justifiable financially), this route is fine. There is a lot to talk about on the Ellensburg-Spokane route though. Currently, there is no rail line between Ellensburg and Ephrata, nor has there ever been. Instead, any train serving Ephrata would have come to/from Wenatchee, so we’ll discuss it from there and come back to Ellensburg in a bit. Down the line from Wenatchee is a proposed new stop at Quincy. Ignoring the small population of the town, this would be a no-go from the start just because of the close proximity to the existing Wenatchee and Ephrata stops. The town is currently served by Grant Transit Authority on weekdays/Saturdays, which is more than adequate, but it would be worth looking into a transit link between Quincy and Wenatchee. Further down the line, there are proposed new stations at Coulee City, Wilbur, Davenport, and Medical Lake. In actuality, not one of these 4 towns are on the rail line between Wenatchee and Spokane (though they are on a spur line owned by WSDOT, but it only runs from Coulee City to Cheney). Between Ephrata and Spokane, the only towns on the rail line with any significant population are Odessa and Harrington, neither of which could justify a station. Going back to Ellensburg, there is a proposal that comes up every now and then which could add another route to the map and further increase rail capacity overall for the state. Between Ellensburg and Lind was where part of the old Milwaukee Road rail line ran. Part of the line is still in active use (currently owned by WSDOT and BNSF), and so there is the possibility of rebuilding the rest of the line. It wouldn’t be cheap, as the lowball estimate would put the cost somewhere around $200 million ($2 million/mile). If the line were to be rebuilt, we could possibly have a new station at Othello, as well as a faster route between Seattle and Spokane for the HSR route. Lastly, we have the route between Pasco (Tri-Cities) and Spokane. Of the five proposed new stations on the route, Ritzville and Cheney both have existing stations still in good condition. Ritzville’s is currently being used as a town/NP museum, while Cheney’s is being used as BNSF offices. Minimal work would be required to bring these stations up to standard, and both can easily be justified as stops on the route. In the case of Lind and Sprague, both towns are too small to justify stops. Finally, there is Connell, and while it could be argued that there is enough people in town to justify a stop, they would be much better served by adding a stop on the Greyhound route that already passes by daily, as well as a transit route between there and the Tri-Cities (something that never existed).
In conclusion, I will say again that I’m glad this map has been released to help foster discussion about the future of passenger rail in Washington State. However, with this post I wanted to help clear up some details and help improve the overall accuracy of the map. Anyone can draw lines on a piece of paper, but as transit advocates it is crucial to make sure we have a plan that is clear and concise, as well as realistic and error-free.
If you have any thoughts or responses to this post or the map, feel free to comment below or send me a tweet to @ziggzagzac.
UPDATE 2/6/14: After I first shared this, Ben Schiendelman and Jeff Hammerquist from Friends of Transit made some updates to the map based on the feedback from this post. (To view the full version, see the .pdf.)
Also, hello to everyone from today’s Open Thread on the Seattle Transit Blog!