After the Ogden-to-Hood River, Ore., Amtrak Pioneer returns to Utah on Sunday, 114 years of passenger service across southern Idaho are over.
Since the Oregon Short Line Railroad was completed in 1883, passenger trains have rolled between Pocatello and Farewell Bend on the Idaho-Oregon border continuously except for a six-year hiatus between 1971 and 1977. The last scheduled run to Hood River was Sunday.
“I’ve been riding that train for 35 years,” Irene Williams said as she waited in the early morning in Pocatello. “I live in Hermiston, Ore., and I don’t know how I’ll get here now.”
She is one of only three paying passengers waiting for the Pioneer.
“If this rain ran at 2 in the afternoon instead of 2 in the morning, it might be full,” said conductor Terry Morris, in charge of six cars and 134 sleeping passengers. “It’s always sad to see a train die.”
Passenger trains have been rolling to a stop in Shoshone since Chester A. Arthur was president, and even after the Union Pacific Railroad shuttered its station and moved its employees, Amtrak - a federal agency that took over passenger rail transportation in 1971 - stayed on in Shoshone.
Between July 1995 and June 1996, the last full year for which statistics are available, just 1,001 passengers boarded or debarked Amtrak at Shoshone.
The Pioneer, which Amtrak says is losing $20 million a year, has been dodging government accountants and cost-cutting congressmen since it was born in 1977, six years after Union Pacific idled its passenger-bearing City of Portland across southern Idaho.
The Pioneer’s champion was the late Sen. Frank Church, a Democrat who by force of his political clout persuaded a reluctant Congress to put the route in Amtrak’s budget, and then fended off a hostile Transportation Secretary Brock Adams to keep it alive.
“I wish he was here today,” Morris said.
When Church was defeated for re-election in 1980, the conventional wisdom was that the Pioneer was doomed. Yet it survived, improbably, for 17 more years, thanks to lobbying by former Gov. Cecil Andrus, a Democrat, and ex-U.S. Sen. James McClure, R-Idaho.
But McClure retired in 1991 and Andrus four years later. Ever since, the Pioneer has been without a political protector. Two years ago, when Congress decided that Amtrak must do without federal subsidies after 2002, the Pioneer’s demise seemed just a matter of time.
Although it received a six-month reprieve last November, Amtrak pulled the plug for good in March.
“I don’t know if this particular train will be back, but I think passenger service will come back to southern Idaho in some form someday,” Morris said.
“Amtrak is talking about bidding for mail service, and if that happens, it will be economically feasible to add some passenger cars.
“I know a lot of small towns are used to hearing that train whistle in the night,” Morris said. “But it doesn’t stop here anymore.”