A federal study of long-distance passenger rail routes has some local and statewide train travel advocates hoping service to the Yakima Valley might be restored.

Gary Wirt of Yakima, vice president of the All Aboard Washington passenger rail advocacy group, said the Federal Railroad Administration is seeking input through March 17 for its study of routes that were previously discontinued.

He is hopeful the federal study could be a step toward restoring passenger rail service to Yakima, Toppenish, Ellensburg and elsewhere — cities that have been without it for more than 40 years.

“With this study, (the railroad administration) is attempting to measure the amount of state, county and local interest in restoring passenger rail routes,” 

Wirt wrote in an email. “If we do not get involved in the FRA study now, passenger rail service to Yakima and Central Washington may not be included.”

Yakima City Council member Patricia Byers mentioned the issue during council work session last week and encouraged city officials and residents to respond to the study.

“We can partner with the Yakama Nation, All Aboard Washington and others to write letters and provide support for this,” Byers said.

History of Yakima Valley rail service 

Freight traffic moves through the Kittitas and Yakima valleys via the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Stampede Pass rail line.

Yakima and Toppenish previously had passenger rail service over these tracks as part of Amtrak’s North Coast Hiawatha route (through 1979) and briefly via the Amtrak Empire Builder route, before the latter was rerouted over Stevens Pass in October 1981, Wirt said.

In recent years, All Aboard Washington and other regional agencies, including the Benton-Franklin, Kittitas Valley and Yakima Valley Conference of Governments, have urged the Washington State 

Department of Transportation to seek federal funding for a Spokane-to-Seattle passenger rail route that would pass through these areas.

In its June 2022 letter to Gov. Jay Inslee, the Yakima Valley Conference of Governments notes that resumption of passenger rail through the region would create jobs, improve safety and reduce pollution and traffic.

“Rail helps improve air quality, provide a cleaner environment, and reverse climate change,” the letter states. “Passenger rail is 3 times more efficient than a car on a passenger mile basis.”

The letter adds that the BNSF/ Stampede Pass rail line could provide renewed passenger rail service to more than 300,000 Central Washington residents annually, and provide capacity relief to other rail lines within Washington state and the Pacific Northwest region.

State study

Previous studies have examined the costs and potential demand for restoring passenger rail service through Central Washington, and their results have stirred debate between rail advocates and WSDOT officials.

Ron Pate, director of WSDOT’s rail, freight and ports division, replied to YVCOG’s letter in October and referred to a July 2020 state study prepared for the Legislature.

The study examined the viability of passenger rail service that would serve Auburn, Ellensburg, Yakima and the Tri-Cities, Pate said.

Among other things, the study found the route would take eight hours and 35 minutes between Spokane and Seattle; would have a maximum annual ridership between 205,000 and 215,000; and infrastructure such as track enhancements and station upgrades would cost from $70 million to $100 million.

The study also showed high levels of support, with more than 70% of those surveyed indicating they would try the service. Only 4% were opposed or strongly opposed to it.

“The report determined that long journey times, low ridership projections and high costs of construction do not make this route financially or logistically viable,” Pate concluded.

Wirt and others with All Aboard Washington dispute Pate’s conclusions, noting the 2020 study was a preliminary report. It states in its introduction that “further work will be required to confirm or refine its findings, including service definition, track and station design along with possible ridership and financial outcomes.”

“The study did not determine the cost or benefits of passenger rail service, and was not intended to do so,” Wirt added.

He also said a significant portion of the route’s infrastructure improvements could be federally funded through money available via last year’s federal infrastructure law, but the state needs to request this money, and thus far, the 2023 Legislature has not advanced a bill doing so.

“WSDOT has told AAWA many times that WSDOT will not take any action regarding improving restoring passenger rail service to Central and Eastern Washington unless directed by Gov. Inslee or the Legislature,” Wirt wrote in his email to the Herald-Republic.

“To date in the current session, no rail-related legislation has been introduced.”

The infrastructure law provided $66 billion for passenger and freight rail over a five-year period, with $22 billion of that going to Amtrak, which Wirt said is more than the total of all congressional appropriations for Amtrak over its 50-year history.

Yakima city officials have mentioned expanded rail service to Central and Eastern Washington as part of a pitch to use Yakima’s airport to relieve pressure on Sea-Tac. City Manager Bob Harrison said improvements to Yakima’s airport could be paired with passenger rail connections.

• Contact Joel Donofrio at jdonofrio@yakimaherald.com.