As the state continues to explore the idea of a bullet train line from Seattle north to British Columbia and south to Portland, it is now beginning to look at reviving passenger rail service from Spokane to Auburn through Stampede Pass. A consulting group plans to report back to the legislature next year regarding infrastructure costs, ridership demand and what type of service could be provided. However, some members of the Joint Transportation Committee (JTC) at their Dec. 17 meeting expressed reservations as to whether that would be feasible.
The Stampede Pass corridor is a 230-mile single rail line from Pasco in eastern Washington to Auburn in central Puget Sound that is currently owned and operated by Burlington Northern Sante Fe (BNSF) Rail. A passenger train service used to operate on the line but has been defunct for 90 years. Currently, there is rail service from Seattle to Spokane and south from Vancouver, Washington to Pasco along the Empire Builder lines.
Proponents of a passenger service line view it as a way to improve transportation service between the two regions in the state. According to Steer Group Associate Ian Sproul, they’ve experienced significant stakeholder interest based on feedback from two recent discussions in Yakima and Pasco. Yet he added there were concerns “that journey times needed to be competitive with the car.”
Right now the concept is to have 1-2 trains operate per day in each direction. As part of the study the consulting group will be modeling ridership demand based on the options provided.
“If it takes an hour and a half to get from Yakima to Pasco and it costs $4.50 against an option that takes two hours, but costs $2.50, which option would you pick?” Sproul said. “We ask a series of those questions to try and identify what people’s behavior would be. It tells us (about demand) for the current period as well as for future years.”
The question of passenger service through Stampede Pass was the topic of a 2017 paper sponsored by All Aboard Washington (AAWA). The study’s conclusions were conservatively optimistic, noting that the service “would be an especially attractive alternative for commuters dealing with frequent traffic congestion, accidents, and – especially in the winter – dangerous driving conditions on I-90. A significant number of people commute long-distance along the corridor. The rapid growth of already very high housing prices in Seattle and its suburbs is likely to foster further trans-Cascades commuting, a portion of which might be accommodated by a rail service.”
Yet the study also observed that “population density east of the Cascade Mountains is generally light and funds that would need to be expended to restore and operate a passenger train on the Stampede Pass corridor would have opportunity costs inasmuch as those same funds could be invested in other areas of the state with greater transportation demand.”
There’s also the issue of infrastructure limitations. Currently, BNSF uses the line to move empty freight. According to Sen. Curtis King (R-14), stacked containers can’t move through the tunnel due to low heights. “As we looked at this passenger rail and trying to make it viable for Burlington Northern, you needed to raise every one of those tunnels. I just tell you that, because we’ve looked at this before.”
The consulting firm will release its findings in June 2020.