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Rail advocates urge further study of Stampede Pass train

A study examining the possibility of passenger train service from Spokane to Seattle through Stampede Pass released last year offered mixed conclusions as to its feasibility. Nevertheless, some passenger rail advocates argue that the state should continue exploring the idea, particularly for shorter routes between Central and Eastern Washington cities.

The Stampede Pass corridor is a 230-mile single rail line owned and operated by Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Rail. A passenger rail train service operated on the line until 1981 when it was rerouted to Stevens Pass. Now the line is used to move empty freight cars.

However, 2020 study indicated that the Spokane-Seattle route may be less appealing to travelers with its eight-and-a-half-hour travel time, noting that “this is considerably longer than by automobile, air or intercity bus for most city-to-city pairs.”

Yet, All Aboard Washington Co-Executive Director Patrick Carnahan told the Washington State Transportation Commission (WSTC) at its July 21 meeting that the train could be competitive with existing bus services such as Greyhound in certain parts of the state. A potential passenger train trip from Spokane to Yakima could take under four hours, while a Greyhound bus takes six-plus hours due to transfers in Pasco or Ellensburg.

“The statement about long journey really centers on the total travel times from Spokane to Seattle,” he said. “This discussion is really not about Spokane to Seattle riders only, (but) rather between city pairs like Spokane and Yakima, Tri-Cities and Ellensburg, Seattle and Cle Elum.”

While the study looked at stations in various cities, Carnahan said “there are other cities along the route that should also be evaluated. These are rural communities that have little to no public transit options,.”

Among the cities to potentially examine is Cheney, where Eastern Washington University is located. Carnahan said the existing rail line headed East ends up just seven miles from Spokane International Airport.

“It’s pretty easy to envision travelers from Yakima or the Tri-Cities taking the train to Cheney and flying out of Spokane airport rather than enduring the increasing hassle of Sea-Tac airport. It’s really faster to go to Spokane.”

Yet, other logistical issues remain regarding cost and ridership numbers. The 2020 study found that the upfront costs would be $450 million to do infrastructure improvements and furnish the locomotive and passenger cars. Also, it would need an estimated $20 million in annual subsidies to fully cover operating costs.

The report also estimated that the ridership figures would be somewhat low, between 31,000-205,000 annual trips.

However, Carnahan argued that much of the costs could be covered by Federal Railroad Administration grants. He also said that the 2020 study found high levels of community support for the proposed rail line.

The 2020 study also recommended that “more work be undertaken to refine the capital and operating cost estimates, better understand origin and destination of trips and the ridership potential and greater understanding of the freight needs for the corridor.” Carnahan believes that the study’s ridership figures may be underestimated by as much as 50 percent.

“We think ridership needs further, more detailed analysis in order to more accurately measure the benefits,” he said.

All Aboard Washington recommends that WSTC conduct a cost-benefit analysis of passenger rail service, as well as set up a Passenger Rail Opinion Group.

TJ Martinell is a native Washingtonian and award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Bellevue, he’s been involved in the news industry since working at his high school newspaper.

His investigative reporting for various community newspapers in the Puget Sound region has been recognized by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society for Professional Journalists.

A graduate of Eastern Washington University, he has a B.A. in journalism and was the news editor of EWU’s student university newspaper.

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