Electric trains once ran daily between Spokane and Coeur d’Alene, linking the downtowns with more than 60 roundtrips per week.
It is time, I believe, to put the service back into operation. It makes sense to turn to a 19th-century transportation solution for a 21st-century answer to a 20th-century mess.
Talk about building a rail line between the two communities started in the early 1890s.
“With its natural facilities and picturesque surroundings, Spokane is lacking in one thing, and that is a summer resort in its immediate vicinity,” wrote the Coeur d’Alene Press in April of 1892. That year, surveyors and engineers from the Spokane Street Railway Co. began investigating the route.
What with delays, financing concerns and the perpetual machinations of politics, partial service didn’t begin on the electric line until 1900.
Miners, vacationers and tourists used it. At one time, trains made the 30-odd-mile journey almost every hour. It was an elegant method of bringing visitors to Lake Coeur d’Alene’s many steamboat outings.
With the advent and supremacy of the automobile, the line became less attractive and ridership diminished. The railroad changed ownership many times. Finally, service was discontinued, its 1940 final run capping a decade of decline. All of the overhead electrical wires were removed, although some of the right-of-way is still used by the Burlington Northern Railroad.
A society’s needs change over time, as do its financial priorities. With clogged highways, high fuel and insurance costs, and the need to save every natural resource we can, it’s time for railroads to ride to the rescue again.
Railroads have never really gone away, of course, despite the well-publicized problems of a very underfunded Amtrak. On any major freight line you will see train after train filled with containers and piggy-back trailers, taking thousands of diesel trucks off of the highways.
Freight transporters have discovered that moving shipments is considerably cheaper by rail than by road when the rails are already in place.
The rails are in place in Eastern Washington and the Idaho Panhandle, and the rails that move our freight can move our people as well.
Passenger rail service again linking Coeur d’Alene with Spokane would benefit many, many people.
First, it would pump federal transportation dollars into the area, bringing jobs. Competition for D.C. dollars is fierce and all too often, major cities obtain the money for their own rail needs to the detriment of less populous areas. The classic example in the last 20 years has been that of Los Angeles using $ 1.1 billion to build a subway run of four miles. It hasn’t helped the majority of Southern Californians in the least and most of them will never ride it. Some of that money could work wonders here.
Second, renewed commuter service combined with feeder buses would be a major convenience in decent weather and an absolute life-saver in bad. Many of the people who make the commute on a daily basis would save money, while getting frazzle-free time to work, read or sleep.
Third, parking congestion is eased wherever and whenever trains run. Spokane’s traffic problems border on the nightmarish. During tourist season, Coeur d’Alene has parking problems befitting a town twice its size.
Tracks run almost to the doorway of the Coeur d’Alene Resort. Spokane’s main line runs right through the center of town.
The tracks are in place and no electrification would be needed. Regular diesel engines could pull as many passenger cars as required.
Start-up costs would be minimal, and when the success of this “new” approach is established, more money could be used to upgrade cars, tracks and other equipment, to make this commuter run a desired boost to work and play, and a source of civic pride.
Rail lines run all over Washington and Idaho, linking many small communities. Further into the future, the day could well come when a train or two a day in each direction would link us with convenience and savings that we can only imagine.
Making this happen will take political effort and lobbying. There is no cattle stampede of Boise or Olympia legislators to better the lives of the citizens on the other side of their respective states. Sadder still, there often isn’t the corporate push for projects that can be accomplished as inexpensively as this one could be.
But the notion of a renewed commuter line is so simple, so economical and practical, in both its direct and collateral benefits, that it might become politically irresistible.
The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Fred Glienna Contributing writer
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