As President Biden’s ambitious passenger rail expansion plan faces an early test on the Gulf Coast, Washington train advocates have expressed concern about how it could affect the Pacific Northwest.
Central to the Gulf Coast case is the issue of Amtrak passenger trains competing for space with freight trains on privately owned tracks. Most of Amtrak’s routes outside the northeastern U.S. run on tracks owned by private companies, like Union Pacific or BNSF in the Pacific Northwest. A federal board will decide whether private rail companies have the right to keep Amtrak trains off crowded tracks.
Gary Wirt, vice president of the advocacy group All Aboard Washington, says a ruling in favor of the freight companies could kill passenger rail for good – including here in the Pacific Northwest.
“If the railroads have a right to say, ‘Oh, you can’t operate on my tracks because we’re too busy,’ then we’re not going to have a long-distance railroad system,” he said. “Everybody’s kind of sitting here biting their fingernails waiting for a decision to come out.”
In contrast, state Sen. Marko Liias, D-Everett, believes the Pacific Northwest is in a different situation than the Gulf Coast. Liias, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, said he wasn’t too familiar with the details of the Gulf Coast case, but he thinks Washington and Oregon would maintain a cooperative relationship with BNSF, the company that owns most of the track used by the Amtrak Cascades route that runs from British Columbia to Portland.
“Even if there’s an adverse decision,” Liias said. “I don’t expect that there would be any kind of immediate impact because we’ve built these partnerships and relationships to deliver good rail service here.”
Liias acknowledged that despite the amicable partnership with BNSF, competing with freight for track space leads to undesirable service disruptions, like delays or cancellations. In the future, he would like to see hourly train service along the Vancouver to Portland route – a goal that would likely require the construction of new tracks and potentially a high-speed line to make it time competitive with driving.
Federal dollars from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will allow the state to move more quickly to expand passenger rail. Still, Liias said it might take 10-30 years to build out that vision.
“Rail in the state transportation system is (and) has been underinvested in because we’ve got really pressing needs for highways and bridges and congestion relief,” Liias said. “The opportunity to pull down a lot of federal money … will really energize our efforts.”
Wirt, who lives in Yakima, wants to see expanded service beyond east of the Cascade crest and questioned the Legislature’s decision to prioritize high-speed rail for Western Washington over east-west service. Ideally, he said, passengers would board a morning train in Seattle, rumble through Cle Elum, Ellensburg, Yakima and Pasco, and arrive in Spokane by late afternoon or evening.
However the state plans to use the money, Wirt hopes the Legislature and Gov. Jay Inslee earmark more for passenger rail development next session.
“Nothing’s going to happen, I can tell you, unless our state takes some action,” Wirt said.