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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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What does passenger rail need in Eastern Washington? Two upcoming meetings offer the chance to share your thoughts

UPDATED: Wed., Aug. 18, 2021

Empire Builder passengers disembark from a train arriving from Portland just after midnight in Spokane in 2017.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Empire Builder passengers disembark from a train arriving from Portland just after midnight in Spokane in 2017. (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Patrick Carnahan and Charlie Hamilton, co-executive directors of All Aboard Washington, have spent the past week traveling the state to drum up support for expanded passenger rail service.

On Thursday, they will stop in Spokane. And on Friday, they’ll be in Cheney.

Carnahan said the focus of their so-called “train trek” will be on the potential for new daytime service to Seattle, the possibility of a more robust regional rail network and the way passenger rail can help enhance economic development, environmental stewardship and equity.

But while he and Hamilton want to make the case for the benefits of additional east-west rail, Carnahan said they also want to hear “specific solutions and priorities” from Eastern Washington residents.

“We really want this to be a conversation,” Carnahan said.

That conversation is already well underway on the West Side, where lawmakers in Olympia solicited a study of a new line that would run daily from Spokane to Seattle, crossing over Stampede Pass and stopping in Pasco, Toppenish, Yakima, Cle Elum and Auburn on the way.

When it was completed last year, the study concluded that the “introduction of daylight passenger rail service along the Stampede Pass route is physically and operationally feasible.” But it also noted a number of obstacles, including “significant upfront costs” of nearly $390 million in infrastructure improvements and equipment for a twice-daily round trip; operating costs of nearly $30 million a year; a lengthy travel time of 8½ hours; and a relatively low annual ridership of 205,000 for a twice-daily round trip that would bring in just more than $6 million a year.

But that study also identified significant support for the project.

And with the federal government apparently on the brink of making its largest investment in passenger rail since Amtrak was founded, Carnahan said now may be the time to overcome those challenges and boost the state’s and the region’s rail infrastructure.

Earlier this year, Congress allocated $1.7 billion to Amtrak’s long-distance routes like the Empire Builder that serves Spokane, restoring daily service that had been cut during the pandemic.

Carnahan said the current climate indicates “there are a lot more opportunities coming about, which are really exciting, but what we’ve found is the biggest obstacle, but also the biggest opportunity, is improving public awareness.”

After many years of underfunding, he said, “there’s a lot of inertia, and a lot of priorities have been put off too long. And part of that is there hasn’t been a strong grassroots voice for passenger rail.”

To create an amplifier for that voice, All Aboard Washington is working to create a passenger rail opinion group that would be modeled on the state’s Ferry Riders Opinion Group, which advocates for its needs to the Washington State Transportation Coalition.

Meanwhile, during their visits to Spokane and Cheney, Carnahan said, he and Hamilton hope to boost excitement about the possibility of east-west service.

“The support is strong when people know about it, but a lot of people don’t know about it,” he said.

Carnahan said it’s important to find out what people in the region want from passenger rail.

“Is there anything missing, something that’s not being included in the conversation?” he asked. “We’re still open to a lot of ideas, and, in fact, that’s a part of the whole reason for the train trek.”

They are also open to possibilities beyond the state line. On Wednesday, Callahan and Hamilton were in Montana, convening with the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority in an effort to boost regional rail.

The Thursday meeting will begin at 5 p.m. at the Spokane Airport Event Center, 9211 W. McFarlane Road. To register, visit aawa.us/events/2021-train-trek-spokane-area.

The next day, the group will meet 10 a.m. at the Wren Pierson Community Center, 615 4th St., in Cheney. Registration is at aawa.us/events/2021-train-trek-cheney.

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