Options for restoring service

As we face yet another round of freight congestion on the route of the Empire Builder, it is more imperative than ever to offer rail alternatives for the Northwest. We recently received this comment from a website visitor, which we’re sharing.

Have you considered a boot-strap approach to restoring service?

I know Amtrak will consider operation by private operators so you might consider the equivalent of a “Farmer’s Coop” approach to purchasing equipment. The equipment that might be suitable is made by US Railcar and is self powered, can have a ‘bistro’ and can pull up to two regular coach and or sleeper cars. I think you would need about 7 such railcars to restore service.

You could purchase the equipment through a coop arrangements where each city with a stop on the route could purchase shares. You could also seek out grants for the new equipment. You can hold fundraisers in the cities involved and give the host city shares based upon the donations of citizens who attend the fundraising event in the named city.

The plan has the advantage of some new equipment, for PR and reliability. The ability to use older equipment on lease from Amtrak to cover your need as ridership grows. As well as the use of modern and cost-effective locomotive power.

If ridership grows to outstrip the Railcar and 2 coach or sleeper model, you can consider further fundraising to purchase additional railcars and run an alternate schedule with two trains a day service.

I hope you give this concept some thought and a little research into the cost involved in securing locomotive power combined with coach capacity as in the US Railcar. This may well prove to be more cost effective than the proposed train from Amtrak and it gives you the added advantage of bringing capital to the table to negotiate the resumption of service.

Moving Forward

All Aboard Washington and other interested parties are still working diligently on moving the Restoration of the Pioneer forward. Please keep checking back with us for the latest updates on our progress. We thank C.B. Hall for his years of effort on the project and wish him best in his future projects.

A note from C.B. Hall

I have the unpleasant task of informing all of you that I need to relinquish my work as coordinator of the Pioneer restoration effort. In the past couple of years I have focused on the need for independent research that might demonstrate the feasibility of restoring the Pioneer as part of an intermodal corridor transportation system. Those efforts have come to naught: no one has offered to fund the research, and my coordinator’s role has outlived its utility.

The willingness of researchers at Mississippi State University to conduct an independent feasibility study provided encouragement, but that effort did not include a full funding package: matching funds were not to be had. In the end, I had to confront the unwillingness of prospective backers to seize upon an opportunity that might have led, ultimately, to the return of passenger rail to a vast and awe-inspiring swath of the continent.

Congresspeople who have considered the Pioneer’s prospects in response to requests from constituents or communities along the route thus have only one “authoritative” body of information to fall back on – the 2009 Amtrak study that found the service restoration a very dicey proposition. All of you, like me, found that study very much flawed, a mere recounting of the deficiencies that, necessarily or not, plagued the Pioneer in its first incarnation, which ended in the service termination of 1997.

An independent feasibility study would almost certainly have led to a less pessimistic, more forward-looking, assessment. But this is not the place to re-analyze the Pioneer’s potential, or the defects in Amtrak’s dismissive report.

We can take some consolation from the emphasis that the National Association of Railroad Passengers, in its recommendations for the pending Amtrak reauthorization, continues to place on expansion of the national network. The NARP list of prime candidates for expansion includes the Pioneer. The recommendations state that the reauthorization should “require Amtrak to plan expansions that would improve the public utility of all national network routes”; other candidates include the North Coast Hiawatha and Chicago-Florida routes. Hear, hear!

We have also learned at least one lesson: that the decisions Congresspeople make about issues like expanded passenger rail service may be based less on constituent pressure and municipal resolutions – what town wouldn’t like to have a train? – than on credible research that indicates the worthiness of any given expansion. For this reason the emphasis must remain on research that focuses on original, outside-the-box approaches to making trains more nearly profitable.

I hope that NARP’s recommendations will see fruition in the reauthorization that Congress will eventually enact, but efforts towards that end shouldn’t happen within the narrower context of the Pioneer restoration. The focus of the debate, that is, is shifting – as it should. We know more about these things than we did five years ago, and we should put our lessons to use in pushing for a good reauthorization that will facilitate network expansion from sea to shining sea.

It’s been a pleasure working with all of you. Thanks for your support.

– C.B. Hall


February 2013 Update

As you notice, we have a new home – www.pioneertrain.org – courtesy of All Aboard Washington, the Evergreen State’s passenger-rail advocacy organization. Our former host, Visit Cheyenne (the Cheyenne Area Convention and Visitors Bureau) has retired from that role, which it fulfilled since the website’s 2009 inauguration. Thanks to their CEO and president, Darren Rudloff, and his staff for their long and able help in getting information about the Pioneer out to you these several years.

And likewise thanks to All Aboard Washington’s Zack Wilhoite and Charles Hamilton for their help with transferring the site, and with its ongoing maintenance. Such matters leave your technically challenged coordinator cowering.

A new and independent study of the feasibility of the Pioneer corridor continues to be our main focus. We have been discussing such a study with the National Center for Intermodal Transportation at Mississippi State University for some time, but our hopes got a major lift recently when Dr. Hugh Medal, assistant professor of industrial and systems engineering at MSU, expressed interest in performing the study. He has already put together a team from MSU and the University of New Orleans to help him with the work.

This represents major progress, but there remains the usual question: money. Some funds would be available through the U.S. Department of Transportation’s University Transportation Centers program, but this needs to be matched 50-50 by other sources. Dr. Medal has identified some matching money, but it remains for us to find roughly $50-75,000 to complete the funding.

So….Where do we get that kind of money?

Thus far the Pioneer Restoration Organization has run essentially on volunteer labor. I myself have done little fund-raising in my life, but am learning fast now, as I begin contacting potential backers. The Pioneer effort would benefit greatly from your help right now, as we face this crucial question – a challenge but also and an opportunity to get us to the next crucial stage. Congress, which as ever occupies the key decision-making role, will pay attention to credible academic research. All Congress has had to go on thus far, however, is the Amtrak service feasibility of 2009, which simply restated the old Pioneer’s shortcomings, without the keen eye for opportunities that can turn a good idea into a thriving enterprise.

The future’s Pioneer – or whatever it may be called – would be more than a train. It would from the backbone of an intermodal system that could bring more effective mobility options to an entire swath of the country. The potential public benefit of transportation in the nation’s less populated countryside continues to increase as pressures on the airline industry continue to translate into dismal air service prospects for rural America. As National Association of Railroad Passengers chairman Bob Stewart pointed out recently, more and more smaller communities across the map face a future in which rail could be the only intercity transportation option.

Such is our context, and I hope that we’ll rise to the occasion by renewing our efforts, and focusing them on the potential which an independent study of the Pioneer corridor’s possibilities presents.

All the best,

C.B. Hall, coordinator
[email protected]

June 2011 Update

We have now been assured by Dr. Bethany Stich, assistant professor of public policy and administration in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at Mississippi State University, that her services as a researcher are available for performing an independent analysis of the Pioneer’s potential. We feel the prospects are very good for obtaining an analysis that rises above the dismissiveness of the Amtrak-sponsored feasibility study of 2009.

A graduate of Virginia Tech, Dr. Stich has focused her research efforts on “the importance of retaining and revitalizing rail; inland waterway infrastructure; airports as economic drivers; globalization and international trade; freight-based economic development; intermodal development and planning; community development; industry recruitment and retention; sprawl; and citizen involvement,” according to her biography on the MSU website. She recently served as lead author of “An Analysis of the Economic, Workforce and Regional Impacts Associated with the Revitalization of the Columbus & Greenville [MS] Railroad.”

We reached her through the good offices of Gil Carmichael, long-time passenger rail advocate and former federal railroad administrator, of Meridian, MS, whose efforts we very much appreciate.

Next comes the question of funding. We estimate that the study will cost $50,000, and we will be contacting a couple of possible funding sources in the days ahead. Know anyone who wants to contribute $50,000 to a good cause? Please contact me at [email protected]


C.B. Hall