Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be, the old joke goes. And, indeed, there is no discounting the enduring ardor and lobbying prowess of so-called train buffs when it comes to the idea of resurrecting passenger rail service to Central Washington.
It’s been decades —1981, for you sticklers — since Amtrak rail cars last rambled and rumbled into Yakima, a sad demise not only for sentimental railroad aficionados but also a blow to those in the Valley who desire transportation options not (mostly) limited to the internal combustion engine.
So, since early in the Reagan years, our only means of making the sojourn to Seattle have been driving over Snoqualmie Pass (a dicey proposition in wintry months), taking either a Greyhound or airport shuttles (ditto), or flying from Yakima on Horizon Air (expensive). Taking the train would provide a lower-carbon-footprint way to travel and, as old-timers like to regale you, gives passengers gorgeous views, from the Yakima River Canyon to Stampede Pass.
Proponents of resuming passenger rail routes received glimmers of hope this past legislative session, when lawmakers approved $250,000 for a feasibility study of the east-west route that would go from Seattle to Spokane with proposed stops along the way in Auburn, Cle Elum, Ellensburg, Yakima, Pasco and Ritzville.
This editorial board, like a trusty caboose, stands behind the state Transportation Department’s mandate to study such a plan. But, not to dampen train buffs’ enthusiasm, we are holding off a full-throated whistle of support until the economic implications become clear.
The biggest concern is the cost of getting the tracks up to speed and stations habitable. This would be a major infrastructure undertaking. The existing rail lines that wend and undulate over the Cascades likely will need significant upgrades, if not outright replacement. That’s what the $250,000 for the study, spearheaded by Yakima’s Curtis King, the state Senate’s minority leader on the transportation committee, will ultimately determine.
But there are other factors involved. For one, just how fervent and widespread is the support for bringing back passenger train service?
In 2017, John Bowen, a geography professor at Central Washington University, conducted a survey on behalf of All Aboard Washington, a Seattle-based nonprofit whose mission is promoting passenger rail throughout the state. Of the 3,600 who participated in an online survey — more than 600 from Yakima County — Bowen reported that more than 90 percent said they would ride the train more than once a year, with the median number of yearly trips being seven.
If the respondents were a true random sampling, and not skewed toward those who have expressed interest in train travel and eagerly clicked on the survey, the results indicate broad support among the 500,000-population base in Yakima and the Tri-Cities.
There are many upsides, environmental and economical, to getting plans for resumption chugging along.
Most obvious is that it would more easily connect people without an automobile to the west side. This would include students at, say, Central Washington University whose permanent residence is west of the Cascades (enrollment figures show that encompasses slightly more than half of the 12,342 CWU students). Older adults, in need of specialized medical care at leading hospitals in Seattle, would feel a lesser burden. People with flights leaving from Sea-Tac Airport would have another option that does not include exorbitant parking costs or higher fares incurred by connecting from Yakima’s airport.
Another factor: It could be an economic boost to Yakima’s burgeoning tourist industry. The Yakima Valley has become a destination for Pacific Northwest wine connoisseurs, who might be attracted to the idea of not having to drive back to the Puget Sound area after wine-tasting tours. Same for our growing craft-beer industry.
Some, though, have cast doubt that ridership numbers would justify restarting service and operating it.
The Seattle Transit Blog, a nonprofit that has covered Puget Sound transportation issues since 2007, has questioned whether travelers will use train service that takes approximately 50 percent longer to traverse than going by car. The problem, according to the blog, is that train operating speeds in two key stretches (over the Stampede Pass and along the Yakima River Canyon) must be greatly reduced.
Timetables the blog exhumed from 1981 Amtrak service show that was a 4-hour, 15-minute trip from Yakima to Seattle — roughly double the time it takes to drive. With track upgrades, proponents hope to cut travel time to under 4 hours.
Though many questions remain that the feasibility study (due by June 30, 2020) needs to address before we can heed the “all aboard” call, resumption of passenger rail service to these parts is worthy of consideration.