A consulting group will soon release a final report on its study of passenger rail service from Seattle to Spokane via the Stampede Pass corridor through Yakima and the Tri-Cities. A draft report shared at the state Joint Transportation Committee’s June 23 meeting indicated that while there’s strong public interest in the idea, practical issues remain regarding rider demand, costs, and operations.
The Stampede Pass corridor is a 230-mile single rail line currently owned and operated by Burlington Northern Sante Fe (BNSF) Rail. A passenger rail train service used to operate on that line until 1981 when the Amtrak Empire Builder was rerouted to Stevens Pass. In recent years, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) has explored reopening service on that line.
Under the current study conducted by Steer Group Consulting, there would be 1-2 trains, one daily and the other twice daily, with substations at Toppenish, Yakima, Cle Elum, and Ellensburg.
Among those in favor of the passenger line is All Aboard Washington (AAW), which conducted its own study in 2017 and promotes passenger rail expansion. The organization’s website “urges our leaders to examine the options carefully and choose an operating plan that gives the Yakima Valley convenient daytime service to the Tri-Cities, Spokane, Seattle, and beyond.”
Though advocates like AAW say the passenger line could better connect a state divided by the Cascade Mountains as well as parts of central Washington, the consulting group has previously cautioned legislators based on public discussions that travel times would have to be comparable to cars. The draft report notes that services would be significantly longer due to a combination of slower maximum speeds and to accommodate for rail freight activity on the same line. Currently, BNSF uses the Stampede Pass corridor to move empty freight due to its lower tunnel height, though a passenger rail line would also be able to use it.
Steer Consulting estimates that a train ride from Seattle to Spokane would take eight and a half hours. The report notes that “this is considerably longer than by automobile, air or intercity bus for most city-to-city pairs.”
As a result, rider demand would be relatively low; the report estimates there would be between 31,000-205,000 annual trips. In comparison, the 467-mile Amtrak Cascade passenger rail line from Vancouver, B.C. through Seattle to Eugene, Ore. last year had 829,000 passengers, a five-year high. The draft report suggested that Stampede Pass corridor ridership would increase slightly if journey times were reduced.
The other issue cited in the draft report is the upfront costs that include up to $450 million worth of significant infrastructure investments and equipment. Even then, Steer Consulting Associate Director Michael Colella estimates the line would require a $20 million annual subsidy to fully cover operating costs.
If the state decided to move forward with the service line, it would then have to determine whether to operate it directly or through a third party as done with Boston’s commuter rail and Paris Metro. One potential operator is Virgin Trains USA, which operates a high-speed rail line in central Florida. If this approach were taken, the train equipment and stations would still be owned by the state.
“I think there’s a market for it,” Colella said, adding that it could be “more cost effective and help finance the investment. (There’s) some very good reasons to consider it, particularly if you feel that Amtrak does not provide as cost-effective or customer-friendly kind of service that you’re looking for.”
However, Colella said that a third-party operator would then have to secure the right to operate on BNSF’s line. The railroad network has expressed support of the study but pointed out that Stampede Pass experiences winter-related issues that could affect the service line.
BNSF External Communications Director Courtney Wallace wrote in an email that the company “evaluates each proposed passenger service on a case-by-case basis and by using our long-standing Passenger Principles, which dictate that we protect our capacity to serve our current and future freight customers. If the state decides to pursue passenger rail service, we’ll continue to have conversations with them.”
For advocates of the East-West passenger line, a silver lining in the draft report was the public response. More than 76 percent of the 600 online survey participants said they were supportive of the project, while 19 percent were neutral. Just 4.4 were somewhat or strongly opposed to it.
The study concluded that “further investigation of the strengths and weaknesses of the broad operator options is needed, not only to identify any fatal flaw that may prevent a particular option from being implemented, but also to undertake a proper value assessment to understand the balance of likely outcomes.”
The final report will be completed on June 30.