When C.B. Hall looks at Amtrak’s system map he sees a “vast white space” between Seattle and Denver – a space where, up until 1997, the Pioneer route wound its way from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Coast.
The line was discontinued after losing $20 million in 1996, but Hall, a Seattle-area writer, translator and volunteer coordinator of the Pioneer Restoration Organization, is among those working to bring it back.
“Amtrak, after all, is supposed to maintain a national system of passenger rail routes,” he said. “A lot of these towns [along the route] still have their train stations… what they’re lacking is a train.”
Many abandoned train stations are in southern Idaho, where the Pioneer once ran from Pocatello through the Treasure Valley and on to Oregon. Today, dozens of Idaho officials are getting on board with the effort to reinstate the Pioneer, led by U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo, who helped pass legislation in Oct. 2008 approving $13 billion over five years for passenger rail around the country.
Part of the funding package included a feasibility study for restoring the Pioneer, which Amtrak has retained Orange, Calif.-based J.L. Paterson Co. to complete. Speaking at the 19th annual Pacific Northwest Economic Region conference in Boise on July 15, Crapo’s State Director of Business, Economic and Rural Development Bob Ford said a draft of that study is due by July 31 or the first week in August. The full report is slated to go before Congress on Oct. 16.
A “favorable or positive” recommendation is expected, Ford said, though Amtrak is being tight-lipped about what the study will cover.
“What is the next step? … I frankly don’t know,” Ford said. “It’ll likely talk about capital investments, models on ridership and operating costs. That’s about all I’m expecting out of the initial report.”
Amtrak West spokeswoman Vernae Graham confirmed the Oct. 16 deadline, but wouldn’t elaborate on specifics.
“This is all part of the feasibility study,” she wrote in an e-mail.
In the meantime, city councils along the route are voicing their support for Pioneer’s return, passing resolutions outlining what they hope to gain from renewed access to passenger rail.
In Sun Valley, the council passed a measure earlier this month saying the return of passenger train service through southern Idaho would increase accessibility and attract more visitors to the area, even though the nearest stop to Sun Valley would be in Shoshone, about 50 miles south.
Nils Ribi, president of the Sun Valley City Council, said Shoshone’s distance from Sun Valley would be overcome by connecting bus lines from the area’s Mountain Rides Transportation Authority, which currently provides transit services to and from Twin Falls.
“It would be a natural for them to connect with the train in Shoshone,” he wrote in an e-mail.
Hall, of the Pioneer Restoration Organization, said that kind of inter-modal network is exactly what the Pioneer route would provide in rural communities.
“Routes like this can be a trunk from which to build a regional transit system, like in Sun Valley, for example, or the Jackson Hole region, places like that,” he said. “The train is the spine of that system.”
Attendees at the PNWER conference in Boise also discussed regional funding and marketing strategies that could be developed to support the Pioneer route, including the potential for collaboration between the Yellowstone Business Partnership’s proposed Yellowstone Park transit system, which is still in the study phase.
“We have to come to this with some imagination,” Cascadia Center Policy Director Bruce Agnew said at the PNWER conference. He suggested partnerships could be forged with groups like Tourism Idaho and commuter rail systems along the line in Denver and Seattle.
Hall said the grassroots support exists for such partnerships, and groups like his are more than willing to work with Amtrak on the final routing and siting of stops.
“Ideally what we’re doing now would form the foundation for Amtrak’s subsequent marketing of the route once it became a reality,” he said. “In approaching studies like this you need to use a bit of a business viewpoint, in that you try to see new opportunities for growth and expansion, or improving the train’s performance generally.”
In the Panhandle city of Sandpoint, where Amtrak operates its only Idaho stop, city leaders are convinced of the economic benefits of access to passenger rail. For months the Sandpoint Historic Preservation Commission and Sandpoint City Council worked with Amtrak to keep service from the Empire Builder line at its existing 93-year-old depot on the Sand Creek Peninsula east of downtown.
But with construction of ITD’s $98 million Sand Creek Byway slated to run right next to the depot, Amtrak officials were reportedly concerned about emergency and bus access, and the building’s poorly-maintained structure, which needs to be brought into compliance with ADA standards.
Aric Spence, a member of the historic commission, caught wind of Amtrak’s consideration of vacating the depot, and launched an effort to convince the company to stay.
“It would just be a shame” if the depot was vacated, he said. “There’s a lot of depots around the country that have been abandoned and they become restaurants or museums, and I think the really crowning achievement would be to retain it as a function station. … I really am adamant about maintaining it as a train passenger stop. The town was founded on it.”
Sandpoint City Councilwoman Carrie Logan agreed, and worked to introduce a resolution to the council formally requesting Amtrak retain its service at the Sandpoint depot. The resolution was approved on July 15, but not before getting word that Amtrak had decided to stick with the depot.
“Amtrak has decided to stay put – status quo – at Sandpoint,” said Graham, of Amtrak West. “The community sort of banding together had a lot do with it… and also because it’s a location for the North Coast Hiawatha,” a line that ran three times per week from Chicago to Spokane, but was discontinued in 1979. Amtrak officials are studying whether to resurrect that route as well.
Though Amtrak has decided to stay at the depot site in Sandpoint, the company is still considering whether it will renovate and use the existing structure, or build something else nearby.
“We’ll be identifying the scope of [work needed in] stabilizing the structure and we will be continuing to engage the community in the process, so there’s still some reviewing going on,” Graham said.
Sandpoint leaders are hoping Amtrak will invest in repairs for the building, and have begun looking at ways to take better advantage of the service, which had over 6,000 riders in fiscal year 2008.
“The town in general has kind of missed the boat on this station,” Spence said.
He envisions a concessions stand, information center and bus connections between the depot and nearby Schweitzer Mountain Ski Resort. Both Spence and Logan pointed to similarly-sized Whitefish, Mont. as an example worth following.
“For instance, in Whitefish, there were 71,000 train visitors in fiscal 2008, and Sandpoint’s train visitors for fiscal 2008 were 6,100. So you can see the financial impact,” he said.
“The relationship with Schweitzer could be unbelievable,” Logan said.
While Sandpoint has been given a second chance to take better advantage of its passenger rail service, communities along the Pioneer route are still crossing their fingers that they’ll be given the chance at all. Hall is optimistic that rail is coming back – not only for its economic benefits, but as a cleaner alternative to automobile and air travel.
“A steel wheel running on a steel rail is a highly efficient form of transportation,” he said. “If we are to approach the environmental problems that transportation has engendered in our society we have to start by making the mechanism of transportation more efficient. A rail system is a prime opportunity for doing that.”