It’s no secret that intercity bus service in Eastern Washington is not what it used to be. When travelling by bus was much more common, some routes in the region would see as many as 7-8 trips a day. Nowadays, the most frequent services just run twice daily.
Out of every city in Eastern Washington, Ellensburg has always been in the most advantaged position in the intercity bus network. Sitting right on Interstate 90 just on the other side of the Cascade Mountains, every single bus that crosses into Eastern Washington has to pass through the city.
This advertisment from the Ellensburg Daily Record on November 12, 1941 gives us a better idea of just how much service Ellensburg had.
You can see immediately that a lot of this service no longer exist today. Perhaps most interesting though is the former location of Ellensburg’s bus depot. Unlike the modern Greyhound stop, which is located on the far western edge of town at a truck stop, the old depot was right in the middle of downtown. Located at the SW corner of Fifth Ave and Pine Street, buses were easily accesible by all residents, including students at Central Washington University which is just a short walk away. The Fifth and Pine depot was later closed on August 25, 1958. For a time, buses stopped in Ellensburg at Antlers Hotel (also located downtown). That didn’t last very long though, as the Antlers Hotel later was destroyed by a massive fire in 1967. After that, Greyhound built a new depot at the NW corner of 8th Ave (now University Way) and Okanogan Street. Presumably, officials with Greyhound were satisfied with that depot for about 30 years, as it wasn’t until 1997 that Greyhound announced the Okanogan Street depot was for sale. Like all the previous stop relocations, residents raised concerns that they would lose their service if a new location couldn’t be found. Three years later, the last move was finally completed as Greyhound officially moved the stop to the Pilot Truck Stop (now Love’s Truck Stop) in February 2000.
Ben Franklin Transit
GM Final Applicants Meet-And-Greet
After former General Manager Tim Fredrickson submitted his resignation in December, the Board of Directors has spent the last few months searching for a replacement while interim GM Ed Frost has kept the agency’s daily operations running. After going through 84 applications, the board narrowed the choices down to a final 2 applicants. On Wednesday, 4/9/14, there will be two “Applicant Receptions,” one at Three Rivers Transit Center at 2:00PM and the other at the BFT Administration Building (MOA) at 7:30PM. Both will be held to give riders, bus operators and staff, and the general public a chance to meet the final choices for BFT’s new General Manager. Both applicants are coming from out of the area, one from Pennsylvania and the other from Texas.
Public Hearing for Service Reductions on 4/22
The City Council will be holding a public hearing on 4/22 at 7:00PM to take comments on proposed service reductions for this summer and the 2014-2015 WSU school year. For summer service, Pullman Transit is proposing to cut the Summer Express 2 route, leaving just the Vacation “E” Route, Vacation “I” Route, and Vacation South Route. For the WSU school year, Pullman Transit is proposing to end the Midnight North and Midnight South routes that currently run on Friday and Saturday from 12:30AM-3:00AM, along with the 12:15AM trips on the PM North and PM South routes. If you can’t make the meeting, Pullman Transit can also take comments by calling their customer service line, (509) 332-6535.
Man Arrested After Attacking Passenger
On March 19th, while riding the bus home from school, a minor was attacked by another passenger. Robert Kreykenbohm was later arrested by Walla Walla Police and charged with 4th degree assault. Video from the bus and additional coverage on this comes from KEPR. In a Facebook comment, a relative of the victim mentioned that they were trying to find out the identity of the woman who tried to get Kreykenbohm away from him. If you have any information regarding that, please contact KEPR.
Hopesource Backs Out of Yakima-Ellensburg Commuter Contract
After holding a stakeholder meeting last month to determine the future of the YEC, Hopesource has announced that they are terminating their involvement with the service effective June 15th. Susan K. Grindle, Hopesource’s CEO, said in a press release that Yakima City Manager Kevin O’Rourke made it clear that the city intended to utilize a private contractor to preserve the service. (O’Rourke later stated that he mentioned that only as a possible option.) Currently, Hopesource is involved with the operation of the YEC due to a state law that prohibits Yakima Transit from directly operating the service as it is more than 15 miles outside of city limits. With this annoucement from Hopesource, it is unclear what will happen with the YEC. As previously covered here on Transit 509, the future of the route is still up in the air regardless, but Hopesource terminating their involvement after this summer will make things much more difficult now.
After spending last month up in Spokane on STA bus routes, the BYD E-Bus was delivered to Ben Franklin Transit yesterday afternoon.
A schedule for where and when the BYD E-Bus will be running this month is still being determined, but keep an eye out here for that information. It’s also worth mentioning again that Ben Franklin Transit already has another electric bus, the ZEPS Bus, in their fleet, so this will make for an interesting side-by-side comparison of the two different technologies.
It’s no secret that the Empire Builder has been running late a lot as of recent. Just last month, the train arrived on time a paltry 12% of the time. A large part of this has to do with the never-ending congestion on the tracks in western North Dakota and eastern Montana, home to the latest oil boom in the US. Weather-related delays, such as the mudslides between Seattle and Everett or the avalanche that cut off Essex MT certainly haven’t helped matters either. Starting April 15th, Amtrak will be instituting a new modified schedule for the Empire Builder, which for now is temporary until further notice.
Overall, the new schedule will see trains in the westbound direction (7/27) serving stops roughly 90 minutes later than the current schedule, and trains in the eastbound direction (8.28) will serve stops roughly 3 hours earlier than the current schedule. Below is a table comparing the current and modified schedules for all stops in Washington in both directions.
It’s hard to say at this point how long this modified schedule will remain in place for the Empire Builder. The 7/27 schedule is essentially taking the delayed arrivals that the train has already been doing for weeks now and making it official. The new 8/28 schedule does present some interesting opportunities, as the train is now a “daylight” service. For example, passengers in Wenatchee will be able to catch a Link Transit bus in most any direction that the agency serves, something that hasn’t been possible with the current 8:42PM arrival. With this modified schedule, station hours at most stops will likely be changing accordingly as well, so keep an eye out for that. Amtrak is pretty good about updating that info online, or you can always call them at 1-800-USA-RAIL.
Earlier this week, Spokane Transit Authority made the official announcement that they would be starting work on replacing all the old bus stop signs in the area with a completely brand new design. In that announcement, it was mentioned that the bus stops haven’t seen any sort of major update in more than 30 years. I thought that this would be a good opportunity to take a look back through those past 30 years and even beyond.
Before STA was established, the city directly ran the predecessor agency Spokane Transit System. The STS name has been gone for more than 30 years now, but a trained eye can catch a couple of remnants from that era in Downtown Spokane, as seen at left.
Before STA took over in 1982, STS made a major change to downtown bus stops in 1980 by instituting a new color-coding system. (“New bus fare hikes, stop changes approved” Spokane Daily Chronicle November 25, 1980) Rather than having every single bus stop every block, STS created a sort of interchange hub in the middle of downtown, where every bus would have their main loading zone next to other routes, which made it easier to transfer between routes. 9 different colors were used to differentiate the different bus stops. It’s unclear how long this system lasted though. However, it is worth noting that a small remnant remains today with the current color-coding system used for individual route schedules.
When STA finally did take over, a lot of new routes to destinations previously unserved began as well. One of those connections included a route running from the South Hill to East Central. To denote the launch of that new connection in May 1983, STA made the new bus stops much more visible by tying blue, green, and white balloons (the same colors of the livery) to them. (“Balloons to mark bus route” Spokane Chronicle May 12, 1983)
It was around that same time in 1983 that the plain blue bus stop signs we’re so familiar with started to pop up. It’s hard to pinpoint an exact timeline on this, but an old blurb from March that year in The Spokesman-Review mentions the installation of these new signs on East Sprague between Division and Havana as part of an effort to ease traffic congestion.
The bus stops signs didn’t get much mention in the press for the next several years. In fact, it wasn’t until 1998 that bus stops became a major talking issue in the Spokane area, as that was when STA initiated a major service revision and moved most routes off neighborhood streets and on to major arterials. Many riders complained that they would now have to walk farther to catch their bus, not just because it was running down the arterial but because the stops were further apart as well. (Most stops were now spaced about every 2-3 blocks at this time.) One letter to the editor even went so far as to denounce the new stops as “perilous.”
It was also in 1998 that STA put out a bid for new bus stop signs, as noted in the legal section of The Spokesman-Review in the April 24th paper. Having never been to Spokane myself back in that time, I’m left to assume that these were for replacement signs and not for a new design. (Any long time Spokane residents and/or riders, please feel free to correct me or add any input to this.)
Finally, we come back to the new bus stop signs.
There’s still some blue on the signs, but it’s not very much. Instead, these new signs use the same colors as STA’s livery, incorporating the same distinguishable swooping design. It’s a clever move on STA’s part, as no other entity uses colors or graphics close to their design. The white base alone makes the signs so much more noticeable, especially from afar. You may also notice a bus stop number on the sign, which is a new feature for STA bus stops. That number will be used in the near future when STA debuts their real-time bus tracking system. A specific timeline for finishing the installation of these new bus stop signs hasn’t been mentioned, but given how fast the signs are popping up already, I think it’d be fair to say all signs should be in place by the start of summer.
After plans to add a stop in Selah on the Yakima-Ellensburg Commuter fell through, Yakima Transit is instead modifying Route 10 to extend service to Firing Center P&R.
Effective today, 3/24/14, the service change brings several changes to Route 10. On outbound service, the bus will still enter Selah using the same route on Selah Road (Hwy 823). At Jim Clement Way, the bus will turn right and continue heading northbound to Park Drive, where it will turn right again and serve the North Park Centre area. Following Park Drive northbound, the bus will turn left at Goodlander Road. At Wenas Road (Hwy 823), the bus will turn right and again continue heading northbound, veering east at the intersection of Harrison Road. At the corner of Hwy 821, the bus will turn right and cross over Interstate 82 to serve the stop at Firing Center P&R (in front of the gas station), where it will then turn around and follow the same route back into Selah. Back in Selah, the bus will head westbound on Goodlander Road, and then turn left to head south on 1st Street. At Fremont Ave, the bus will turn left and serve the stop at Wenas Road and Fremont Ave (next to Selah Christian Church, where the city paid to pave the parking lot for use as a Park and Ride). At Naches Ave, the bus will turn right and head eastbound, then north on 1st Street, and then left again to head westbound on Fremont Ave. After serving the current loop on Speyers Road, 11th Street, and Fremont Ave, the bus will finally head southbound on 1st Street and head back to Yakima.
Note that while the route is extended north to the Firing Center P&R, only 7 trips will serve the stop daily. With the exception of the 7:15AM and the 6:15PM trips from Yakima Transit Center, all other trips will only go up Harrison Road to Zirkle Fruit before turning back southbound. On the Saturday and Sunday schedules, all trips except the last ones of the day (6:15PM Saturday and 3:45PM Sunday) will only go as far as the Zirkle Fruit stop.
Obviously a large part of this route extension is to improve access to the Yakima-Ellensburg Commuter for Selah residents. With the long-term status of the YEC still up in the air, it may seem that this route change is a bit short-sited. However, this is something that Selah has been planning to do regardless of the future of the YEC. It’s hard to say if more or less trips would serve the Firing Center P&R if the YEC was discontinued, but of course it’ll be better for all transit passengers in the area if that doesn’t happen.
Note that with the service change effective today, there is also a small change to the inbound routing on Route 1. On 72nd Ave, the bus will turn right and head eastbound on Chestnut Ave, then left on 65th Ave to head northbound and serve the stop at Harman Center before turning right and resuming the old route at Summitview Ave.
Link Transit is currently taking public input and comments for a number of proposed service improvements that are scheduled to go into effect on July 1st. Most of the changes are minor, with the extension of some trips to run the full route and adding new trips to extend the span of service on other routes.
The last trip leaving Columbia Station at 6:30PM on weekdays currently ends at the Wal-Mart stop at 6:50PM. This trip would be extended to run the full route, with the bus returning to Columbia Station at 7:25PM. (The bus would still have a 10 minute layover at the Wal-Mart stop.)
Currently, Route 9 doesn’t begin running until 9AM. Two new trips would be added in the mornings, with new departures leaving Columbia Station at 8:00AM and 8:30AM. (15 minute service would still start at 10AM). Two more new trips would also be added in the evenings, with new departures leaving Columbia Station at 6:00PM and 6:30PM.
The last trip on Route 8W leaving Columbia Station at 6:00PM on weekdays currently ends at Olds Station (next to the Link Transit Admin/Base facility). This trip would be extended to run the full route, with the bus serving East Wenatchee and returning to Columbia Station at 6:55PM. There would also be a new weekday trip on Route 8E, which would leave Columbia Station at 7:00PM and run the full route before returning to Columbia Station at 7:55PM.
The current weekday-only trip leaving Columbia Station at 5:15PM would be added to the Saturday schedule, with the bus arriving in Manson at 6:33PM and leaving at 6:40PM with the bus returning to Columbia Station at 7:55PM.
A new weekday-only trip would be added, with the bus leaving Columbia Station at 8:00PM and arriving in Leavenworth at approximately 8:48PM. It is not specified if this trip would continue back all the way to Columbia Station, but if it did it would leave Leavenworth at approximately 9:00PM and return to Columbia Station at approximately 9:50PM. The current weekday-only trip leaving Columbia Station at 6:10PM would be added to the Saturday schedule, with the bus arriving in Leavenworth at 6:58PM and leaving at 7:10 with the bus returning to Columbia Station at 8:00PM.
These new trips won’t make a huge dent in Link Transit’s operating budget, as they are projected to add just $94,500 to the current operating budget of $10,725,000. To let them know what you think of these proposed improvements, you can call them at (509) 664-7611, or even send them a tweet to @LinkTransit.
Roughly two and a half years after the service first started, Yakima Transit has announced that they plan to discontinue the Yakima-Ellensburg Commuter, with the last day of service on July 1st, 2014.
This continues a recent trend of cutbacks of service at Yakima Transit, with the recent discontinuation of Route 8 and modification of Route 1, which was initially postponed by city council vote but later approved.
When the Yakima-Ellensburg Commuter first began, it was largely supported by a grant from WSDOT that Yakima Transit and Hopesource had been trying to get for several years prior. At the time, the only intercity bus links that were available were Greyhound and Central Washington Airporter, both of which have base fares that are too high for a lot of potential passengers. With the launch of the Yakima-Ellensburg Commuter, access between the two cities was greatly improved, particularly for people using the bus to attend classes at Central Washington University in Ellensburg and Yakima Valley Community College and Perry Technical Institute in Yakima.
Initially, the fare to ride was $3, though that was later raised to $4 each way. Shortly after the service launched, there was also a monthly pass introduced for the route (which was also valid on all other Yakima Transit and Central Transit routes), which launched at $100/month but was also later raised to $125/month. The fare increases didn’t seem to chase away too many passengers though, as the ridership has continued to grow each year since it first began. In 2012, the Yakima-Ellensburg Commuter carried 39,415 passengers, with that number increasing to ~54,000 in 2013. With the high ridership seen on the route, Yakima Transit officials proudly touted that the Yakima-Ellensburg Commuter had the 2nd highest farebox recovery in the state at 35% (Pullman Transit is 1st). [I checked this stat, and the farebox recovery for 2013 is actually ~30%, which is still impressive.]
While the Yakima-Ellensburg Commuter has clearly been popular with passengers, it hasn’t come without problems for Yakima Transit and Hopesource. Over the course of running the route, there have been almost 20 different vehicles used. Initially, cutaways were used when the service was launched, but as ridership quickly grew larger vehicles were needed. Yakima Transit then bought some used MCI coaches from Grant Transit Authority, along with four others from Ben Franklin Transit later on. Reportedly, the MCI’s didn’t last long, and so Yakima Transit most recently bought some used Gillig Phantoms from Sound Transit. Though buying used buses may have a low upfront cost, they will always have a higher cost of maintenance, as it seems that Hopesource learned the hard way unfortunately. (Note that while the vehicles are owned by Yakima Transit, the staffing and maintenance is done by Hopesource as so to not violate RCW 35.84.060.)
The main reason being cited for the discontinuation of the Yakima-Ellensburg Commuter is the unavailability of state funds. As I mentioned earlier, the service was launched using a WSDOT 2-year grant, and it was continued last year with another 2-year grant. (Note that Yakima Transit will likely have to return part of the grant if the route is cut). Officials stated that “the State has made it clear to the City that no further state funding would be made available for this service including the purchase of more reliable buses.” Without getting off on a tangent about WA’s paltry financial support for public transit, it just comes down to money. Without any sort of financial security for the service, it’s hard to make the case for continuing a service that Yakima Transit themselves recognize as “highly successful,” even though the overall savings in the budget will only amount to $65,000.
So, can anything be done to save the Yakima Ellensburg Commuter? It’s hard to say. Currently, the funding for the route comes from multiple sources, listed below (numbers are for the 2-year period):
- WSDOT (mix of State and Federal funds): $422,247
- Fares: $377,000
- City of Yakima (Yakima Transit): $132,000
- Central Washington University: $120,000
- City of Selah (Selah Transit): $10,000
- HopeSource (the Contractor, non-profit organization): $2,000
Riders would likely support a small fare increase in the face of a complete loss of service, and if pressed hard enough CWU could possibly increase their contribution, which is collected from a mandatory student fee. As I mentioned in the News Roundup last week, Yakima Transit Route 10 (which is operated under contract for the City of Selah) was going to be extended to the Firing Center P&R to give Selah residents a connection to the Yakima-Ellensburg Commuter. While it would likely be small, Selah’s contribution could also be potentially increased. However, almost all of these groups are operating on tight budgets as is, so the future of the route may be a foregone conclusion.
Now, as if the potential loss of the Yakima-Ellensburg Commuter wasn’t enough, Yakima Transit is also looking at ending all fixed-route service on Sundays, which will go into effect April 13, 2014.
Like the Yakima-Ellensburg Commuter, funding for Sunday service has been largely reliant on grant funding from WSDOT, the most recent one being a CMAQ (Congestion Mitigation Air Quality) grant. The current grant funding runs out on the proposed day of Sunday service discontinuation, and Yakima Transit officials state that they will not be eligible for another grant for the service until July 1st, 2015, in accordance with the WSDOT funding cycle. Currently, Sunday service, which sees service on 6 routes on hourly schedules, is costing Yakima Transit $198,000 each year (with $33,000 coming from Selah to operate Route 10). Sunday service is roughly on par with weekday productivity on fixed-route service in Yakima (averaging 18 passengers/hour, versus 23 passengers/hour on weekdays). Again, without any financial security to maintain the service, Yakima Transit is left with a lose-lose situation in this decision.
If you’re interested in voicing your concerns about these potential service cuts, the Yakima City Council will be voting on them this Tuesday, March 11, 2014. The meeting starts at 6PM inside the council chambers at City Hall. If you’re unable to make it, check back here on transit509.com the next day for the latest news on this.
As Ben Franklin Transit and Link Transit both continue to work through issues with their respective E-Bus projects, Spokane Transit Authority is also jumping on board with the potential future of transit by conducting a 30-day trial with an E-Bus built by BYD Motors.
Scheduled to begin today, the E-Bus will be running trial service on several different routes serving the Northside area of Spokane. Below is the schedule of where and when the bus will be scheduled to run (subject to change):
Routes 24/28 5:28AM – 2:07PM
Route 25 10:42AM-7:00PM
Routes 22/27 5:39AM-2:20PM
Routes 24/26/28 1:37PM-10:13PM
BYD Motors has had a bit of a rough go at it as they try to work their way into the North American transit market. Currently, the FTA is deciding whether or not to block the use of federal funds in a contract between BYD Motors and Long Beach Transit (CA). They’ve also had problems as they try to get a bus to pass inspection at the Altoona Bus Research and Testing Center. That said, apart from current head of the E-Bus market, Proterra, BYD Motors seems to have the best product on the market (and that’s coming from someone who’s a huge supporter of Complete Coach Works, another competitor). It’s not immediately clear if this is a WSDOT sponsored test, or if STA is going at this on their own. That said, I commend STA for being smart about this. Rather than making a huge commitment beforehand, they’re giving the technology a small test in the real world first. This continues their trend of smart, thought out decisions on transit technology (such as their decision to pass on CNG fuel based in part on the detrimental effect on the environment).
As noted above, the testing will continue through the end of the month. I’m sure that local media in Spokane will do a good job of getting more coverage on this E-bus trial, but you can also expect to see more coverage here on Transit 509 when I visit Spokane later this month and check out the E-Bus myself. (For more immediate updates, you can follow @transit509 on Twitter.)
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!