Study shows interest in reviving Amtrak route through Yakima

By Leah Beth Ward, Yakima Herald-Republic December 18, 2009 

YAKIMA -- A new study by Amtrak has found that reviving an old route between Chicago and Seattle -- including a stop in Yakima -- would be popular with riders and create economic benefits, but would require massive spending to upgrade the line.

The last passenger train serving Yakima was Amtrak's Empire Builder, was rerouted through Wenatchee in 1981, ending its stop in Yakima.

Amtrak's study looked at re-establishing the North Coast Hiawatha -- which it operated until 1979. According to the study, the train would consist of two or three diesel locomotives, a baggage car, eight bi-level Superliners, a transition sleeping car, two sleeping cars, three coaches, a dining car and lounge.

Congress called for the study last year when it passed the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act, which reauthorized Amtrak.

The North Coast Hiawatha's westbound route from Chicago would cross southern Montana with a stop in Livingston, a gateway to Yellowstone National Park. After Bozeman and Helena, the North Coast Hiawatha would cross the Idaho state line and head to Sandpoint, where it would rejoin the route of the Empire Builder.

In Washington, the train would continue to Spokane and then, at Pasco, split from the Empire Builder, which heads to Portland. The Hiawatha would travel northwest on Burlington Northern Santa Fe's Stampede Pass line to Yakima. From there the train would pass through Ellensburg, crossing the Cascades at Stampede Pass.

"The pass features spectacular scenery characterized by rich evergreen forests and dramatic vistas of snow-capped mountains," the report states.

Restoring the service, including significant capital costs to upgrade tracks and signaling, would require at least $1 billion, "a figure that is subject to significant uncertainty," according to the report.

Based on a total annual ridership of 359,800, about 58 percent of the cost would be recovered from fares. Restoring the route would take at least four years from the time it is funded.

The cost hurdle would be difficult for U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Pasco, to swallow. His spokesman Charlie Keller released a statement in response to the study.

"Amtrak runs a billion dollar deficit each year -- that's simply not sustainable long-term," Keller said.

"The Amtrak system should be improved so that we are not simply digging a deeper hole year after year. Congressman Hastings supports rail service -- however on first read the costs associated with this project create a high hurdle. Congressman Hastings will consider the findings in this report along with input from local communities as Congress works on these issues."

Amtrak concludes that restoration of the North Coast Hiawatha "would generate significant ridership, enhance Amtrak's route network and produce public benefits, including creation of 269 permanent Amtrak jobs.

But the study also notes that state and federal policymakers have to decide whether they will provide the required levels of capital and operating funding to Amtrak.

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