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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Getting There: Daily passenger rail service ends in Spokane; can it come back?

Amtrak’s Empire Builder arrives from Portland at the Pasco Intermodal Train Station on Thursday, April 27, 2017. The Empire Builder, which serves Spokane, has been reduced from daily service to three days a week.  (COLIN MULVANY)

Maybe it’s because the trains come and go under the cover of night, stopping between midnight and 3 a.m., but few seem to have registered the loss of daily passenger rail service in Spokane.

Amtrak’s Empire Builder had been picking up and dropping off passengers every day in Spokane since 1997. That changed on Oct. 19, when the train that plies a 2,200-mile route from Chicago to Seattle and Portland switched to a three-day-a-week schedule.

The change was part of a nationwide slash in Amtrak service that William Flynn, the rail line’s president and CEO, attributed in an October letter to Congress to the “dramatic loss in ridership and revenue that Amtrak experienced due to COVID-19.”

Flynn wrote lawmakers to request $4.86 billion to preserve Amtrak service, including $1.11 billion for long-distance service like that offered on the Empire Builder. He also identified $5.19 billion in “additional investments we recommend be included as part of any economic recovery proposal enacted by Congress before the end of the term to help the nation recover from the impacts of the pandemic.”

Congress, however, has not passed any new relief for the rail line since May, though some have come forward.

On July 1, the House of Representatives approved the $1.5 trillion Moving Forward Act, which would have quadrupled funding for passenger trains and enacted a number of reforms to Amtrak. President Donald Trump threatened to veto it, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has declined to bring it up for a vote.

Then on Oct. 1, the House passed an updated version of the HEROES Act, which included $2.4 billion in emergency supplemental funds for Amtrak. It, too, has languished without a vote.

That means Amtrak has had to fend for itself despite a precipitous drop in its customer base. In April, ridership was down 88% from the same month in 2019 on long-distance routes like the Empire Builder.

While those routes have seen an uptick in passengers since then – the year-over-year drop was 62% in July – Amtrak has responded with cuts and may make more.

If more money doesn’t come by Dec. 11, Flynn wrote in his letter to Congress, Amtrak “will be unable to avoid more drastic impacts.” Among those impacts, he said, could be the loss of 2,400 jobs and even more service.

Charlie Hamilton, a volunteer spokesman for the state rail-advocacy group All Aboard Washington, said riders are feeling the impact of the service cuts, not only in larger cities like Spokane but also in smaller towns like Sandpoint, where the train can serve as a “lifeline” for those without a car and few other options to travel.

And Hamilton pushed back on the idea that the cuts in service have reflected the extent of the drop in demand.

“Because of the reduction in frequency,” Hamilton said, “the trains are fuller than ever. And right now it’s very difficult to get a reservation on what trains are left because they’re full, and that suggests that there is, in fact, interest beyond the capacity that Amtrak is offering right now.”

Hamilton, however, said he has some optimism Amtrak’s call for more cash will be heard and rail service will be restored.

“We’ll see how the election goes,” Hamilton said Friday, when the presidential election had not yet been called. “I think a lot of us are cautiously optimistic that there will be more support for passenger rail. Of course, Sen. Biden is been quite a supporter of passenger rail. Without taking a position as an organization, at least I feel like we’ll be able to get more of a hearing should things go that way. … I think the way things are going is positive.”

Meanwhile, All Aboard Washington is working to generate interest in another plan for daily service in Washington.

The state Legislature recently enlisted a consultant to analyze a number of scenarios for expanding rail service in Eastern Washington, including a train that would leave Spokane twice a day and pass through Pasco, Toppenish, Yakima, Cle Elum and Auburn on its way to Seattle.

While it may sound like a longshot to add passenger rail service when it was just slashed due to low ridership, Hamilton said his group is not deterred and will host online meetings about the prospect of expanded rail service on Nov. 21 and Dec. 5.

“Improved trains is something that is really central to the economic recovery,” Hamilton said. “And, in fact, we think it’s a very good investment at this time.”

While it may be hard to imagine how the loss of daily rail service in Spokane could be restored in this murky and acrimonious political moment, take heart in the fact that it has happened before.

Service on the Empire Builder was reduced in 1977 from daily to four days a week, then dropped to three days a week two years later. But in 1982, daily service was restored, according to Empire Builder Advocates.

In 1995, service was reduced again, to four days a week west of St. Paul, Minnesota. Two years later, though, daily service returned once more, until it ended again last month, for who knows how long.

Work to watch for

Crews are installing a water main on Howe Road to the east of McKinnon Road, leading to Howe’s closure from Lowe Road to Day Mt. Spokane Road. Day Mt. Spokane Road has also seen the closure of one lane due to the work, which is scheduled to be complete Monday, though a county spokesperson said it may continue until midweek. Detours are in place.

Crews working for the Washington State Department of Transportation will be closing southbound U.S. 195 near Spangle on Tuesday and Thursday from 6 a.m. until 5 p.m. to repair bridge expansion joints that cross over the railroad tracks. During the southbound closure, traffic will be led through the northbound lanes of U.S. 195 by a pilot car.

Soda Road remains closed between Geiger Boulevard and Electric Avenue, and Geiger Boulevard remains closed between Electric Avenue and Spring Road. This closures are due to the installation of a water and sewer main.

The Market/Greene Street corridor is reduced to one lane in each direction between Jackson and Euclid Avenue while a contractor is installing a new water line, making intersection improvement, and S-curve modifications. Improvements are expected to be substantially complete by Tuesday.

The People’s Park parking lot at the Sandifur Memorial Bridge will remain closed through Tuesday.

Due to work on the Spokane Transit Authority’s City Line, the westbound curb lane of Mission Avenue between Fiske and Regal Street, the two north curb lanes of First Avenue between Cedar Street and Jefferson Street, and the two south curb lanes of Sprague Avenue between Adams to Cedar Street will remain closed until Friday.