The Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act (PRIIA), which President George W. Bush signed into law on October 16, 2008, called on Amtrak (the National Railroad Passenger Corporation) to study “the Pioneer Route between Seattle and Chicago, which was operated by Amtrak until 1997, to determine whether to reinstate passenger rail service along the route or along segments of the route.” The legislation also required Amtrak to study or plan for restoration of certain other trains. The language mandating the Pioneer feasibility study gave tangible form to efforts by Sen. Ron Wyden (Oregon) and Mike Crapo (Idaho) and Reps. Earl Blumenauer (Oregon), Greg Walden (Oregon) and Mike Simpson (Idaho) to bring the train back.
Early in 2009, Amtrak selected Patterson and Associates, Inc., of Orange, California, to conduct the Pioneer feasibility study. After numerous delays, Amtrak released a draft of the study to governmental decision-makers on September 18, inviting their input in advance of the study’s finalization. Senator Crapo’s office passed the document on to the Pioneer Restoration Organization for comment, and also posted it on his website.
On September 30, PRO and three other organizations sent Amtrak a joint response criticizing the many flaws in the study draft. Joining us in signing the statement were the Seattle-based Cascadia Center for Regional Development, All Aboard Washington (the Washington Association of Rail Passengers), and the Pacific Northwest Economic Region, a statutorily established coalition of Pacific Northwest states, western Canadian provinces, the Yukon and Alaska.
We presented an alternative vision for the Pioneer, stressing the following points among others–
- the need for a very different schedule for the train, and a different mix of stops (including, notably, those on the Denver-Cheyenne Front Range route, which the study draft dismissed as “theoretical”), if the train is to take advantage of all the major markets, including tourist destinations, along the route.
- the advantages of using Viewliners and rehabbing currently idle Amtrak equipment as a means of getting the train running by the end of 2011; the study assumed the use of Superliner cars, which are not as available.
- the need for the Amtrak system to acquire new equipment, such as Viewliners and Superliners, as a system expense, rather than charging new equipment to any given proposed route, up front, and thus rendering any system expansion unattractive.
- the need for constraint in public expenditures for privately owned railroad infrastructure as the “price of admission” for restoration of a single train.
- the proper role of the Pioneer as the backbone of a wider, regional transportation system in a mostly rural part of the country. Amtrak needs to address opportunities for partnerships with bus services, tourist destinations, ski areas and off-route communities in order to give a full and fair picture of the Pioneer’s true potential and likely ridership.
The comment period, from September 18 to October 2, was extremely short. It preceded the equally short finalization stage, during which Amtrak must complete the study for presentation to Congress. According to an Amtrak spokeswoman quoted in an Idaho Statesman article published October 5, “there are unlikely to be any major changes” before the final report’s submission on October 16. She termed the study “a conversation piece to get the discussion going.”
Historically, the Pioneer took two different routes as a Chicago-Seattle train, as our history of the Pioneer explains. The PRIIA language, while it referred to the Seattle-Chicago route, did not provide any more specifics, and did not prohibit Amtrak from analyzing new route possibilities as a matter of due diligence. Still, Amtrak’s draft study gave absolutely no consideration to a new mix of stops on the Pioneer’s historical route, and almost no consideration to the Front Range option. It rehashed the past, with minimal regard to anything resembling a new idea. As the final version of the study reaches Congress, PRO will continue to encourage all concerned to look at those new possibilities – to look beyond the Pioneers of the past. PRIIA’s reauthorization language, stimulus money, and a supportive administration have opened a door, giving Amtrak the opportunity to expand its horizons beyond those of simple survival. We call on Amtrak to take advantage of that opportunity.
Pioneer supporters will also urge Congress to take note of the energetic support for the new train among the communities it would serve. That support creates a foundation for the ongoing promotion of a proud part of the U.S. passenger rail network – the Pioneer and its communities.