Yakima and Kittitas valleys lost passenger rail service in 1979, when Amtrak’s Seattle-Chicago Empire Builder was rerouted over Stevens Pass. The Yakima metropolitan area, with a population of over 250,000, is the largest metropolitan area not served by passenger rail in Washington state. South-Central Washington with a population of over 500,000 comprises a metro region that is not currently served by passenger trains to and from Seattle.

Among the benefits associated with the return of passenger rail service:

  • Improved connections for students and educators by making our educational institutions more accessible from other areas of the state.
  • Improved mobility; think ease of access to downtown Seattle or Spokane.

Improved tourist access for Yakima Valley wine region visits.

  • Additional business and economic opportunities.
  • Reliable connections throughout the year, particularly during winter months when highways may be closed.
  • Better access to Puget Sound-area heath care facilities for seniors.
  • Improved access to Yakima and Seattle sporting events.
  • Avoidance of ever-increasing I-90 traffic.
  • Connections to long-distance passenger train service.

Restoration of passenger rail service to Central Washington has moved beyond wishful thinking. On April 28, our Legislature approved $250,000 “to conduct a study of the feasibility of an east-west intercity passenger rail system (considering service to) Auburn, Cle Elum, Yakima, Tri-Cities, Ellensburg, Toppenish, and Spokane” using existing Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks over Stampede Pass.

The study will include projections of potential ridership, assessment of infrastructure conditions including station stop locations, and identification of equipment needs. The study will also establish an advisory group and associated meetings. A report of the findings of the study is due to the Legislature by June 30, 2020.

Restoring rail passenger service through Central Washington will not be cheap. The Stampede Pass line needs numerous improvements, such as more and longer sidings to accommodate BNSF freight trains, signaling improvements (including now-required positive train control), and improvements to stations and station platforms along the route. Likely, a phased, multi-year, funding effort would be required.

Conducting a feasibility study is a significant step. Both infrastructure costs and potential ridership need to be quantified so that informed, follow-on decisions can be made. This study serves a purpose similar to the study of “new passenger ferry service to better connect communities throughout the Puget Sound area.” Our Legislature concurrently appropriated $350,000 for that purpose.

A meeting in Yakima is being planned to discuss passenger rail service, with date yet to be announced. The meeting will be sponsored by All Aboard Washington (http://www.aawa.us), a nonprofit organization promoting the development of Washington’s passenger rail system for the benefit of the public. AAWA has been leading this effort for several years.

Central Washington needs better transportation connections. Restoring passenger rail service would be a huge improvement. I urge the city of Yakima, Yakima Valley Conference of Governments, and residents of Kittitas and Yakima counties to support this effort over the coming months.

Gary Wirt lives in Yakima.