More than 500 people from Yakima County say they would ride a passenger train to and from Seattle at least once a year, with most folks saying they would ride it more often than that. The better-than-expected response to an online survey is likely enough to keep the conversation rolling about restoring passenger train travel to and from the Yakima Valley.
John Bowen, a geography professor at Central Washington University, conducted the survey on behalf of All Aboard Washington, a Seattle-based nonprofit whose mission is promoting passenger rail throughout the state. The group sees promise in a Seattle-to-Pasco route over existing Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks with stops in Auburn, Cle Elum, Ellensburg, Yakima and Toppenish. Amtrak last ran trains out of Yakima in October 1981, almost 100 years after trains first rolled through the Valley.
A number of survey respondents also see promise in the idea. Admittedly, the survey was skewed toward those inclined toward riding the train; nonetheless, Bowen said the response far exceeded expectations. More than 3,600 took the survey, with more than 600 of them from Yakima County. Bowen said more than 90 percent of local respondents said they would ride the train more than once a year; the median number of annual trips was seven, meaning half the respondents would take more trips and half fewer trips.
The survey continues the process that included a meeting attended by about 75 people last year at Toppenish’s Northern Pacific Railway Museum. Among those at the meeting was state Sen. Curtis King, R-King, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, significant because state support likely will be critical to any Yakima Valley route. The state contributes funding to the Amtrak Cascades route, which connects Seattle with Portland to the south and Vancouver, B.C., to the north. The state reports that the Cascades is Amtrak’s eighth most heavily traveled route nationwide, with almost 800,000 passengers in the 2016 fiscal year.
Survey respondents understand that a railroad line would offer an alternative to the congestion of Puget Sound area highways and Interstate 90 at Snoqualmie Pass, and it would appeal to those who don’t like to drive in snowy weather. In addition to providing a way for Valley residents to get away to the big city, it would help bring tourists from the Seattle area. Bowen also cites commuter possibilities, noting that U.S. Census data show 326 people commute from Yakima to Seattle for work. It also would connect with other Amtrak service to Seattle and Pasco.
Still, much needs to be done before this would become a reality. The schedules must meet the needs of local residents; the rail line would need upgrades on its twisting path over the Cascades; stations and platforms would need to be added and improved; fares must be reasonable. And, of course, the rail line would compete with other transportation needs for state dollars.
The train has not left the station yet. But there are a number of people who are on board with the concept and — should it come to pass — on the train itself.