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Idaho congressmen are organizing a congressional delegation to push for the return of the Amtrak Pioneer passenger train that, from 1977 to 1997, ran through Idaho, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming, as the Jackson Hole Star Tribune reports. A bill to boost Amtrak funding cleared the U.S. Senate last year. Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo included an amendment in the $11.4 billion bill that required Amtrak to study reinstating all or parts of the Pioneer route in the West. The House also approved a version of the bill, and now the two chambers need to reach a compromise. Over the last couple days the Casper Star Tribune and the Idaho Statesman editorialized on the subject, taking decidedly different views.

A Push to Revive Amtrak’s Pioneer Route Across the West

Idaho congressmen are organizing a congressional delegation to push for the return of the Amtrak Pioneer passenger train that, from 1977 to 1997, ran through Idaho, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming, as the Jackson Hole Star Tribune reports.

A bill to boost Amtrak funding cleared the U.S. Senate last year. Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo included an amendment in the $11.4 billion bill that required Amtrak to study reinstating all or parts of the Pioneer route in the West. The House also approved a version of the bill, and now the two chambers need to reach a compromise.

Over the last couple days the Casper Star Tribune and the Idaho Statesman editorialized on the subject, taking decidedly different views.

The Tribune, in a piece titled, “Don’t hold your breath waiting for Amtrak“, wrote:

It’s hard to be very enthusiastic about a proposal to bring Amtrak passenger rail service back to Wyoming.

“For the past 30 years, Amtrak has not demonstrated any real ability to provide reliable and cost-efficient service in Wyoming,” said Republican Sen. John Barrasso. He’s right, and there’s no indication that the situation has improved. …

Our advice: Go ahead with the study, but don’t expect much to happen. Wyoming U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi said he would be willing to fully consider the impact of passenger rail service in Wyoming if Amtrak can present a financially viable plan for the Pioneer train in the state.

But Enzi cautioned, “While rail service is good in theory, the reality is that the cost is rarely offset without digging into taxpayers’ wallets to provide heavy government subsidies.”

Amtrak has consistently failed to cover its costs in the most heavily populated areas of the country. How is it going to do so in sparsely populated states like Wyoming? …

We’d much rather see some government investment in infrastructure for the proposed high-speed rail system between Billings, Mont., and Albuquerque, N.M.

The Statesman’s more optimistic outlook, “Necessity joins nostalgia in Amtrak debate“:

Nowadays, railroad advocates don’t need to reach back into yesteryear to sound persuasive. Current events work just fine. …

In the spring of 1997, when the Pioneer line made its last run through Idaho, gas averaged about $1.34 per gallon in the state. On Tuesday, according to AAA Idaho, the average gas price was $3.81 per gallon.

Taking a second look at the feasibility of the Pioneer line isn’t just study for the sake of study. The market conditions are sufficiently different to warrant this feasibility study.

Intuition suggests researchers will find increased demand for passenger rail – driven not by starry-eyed romanticism but by sharp-eyed pragmatism. We would think, given the opportunity, Idaho travelers would be more interested in an option that allows them to avoid the cost and the hassle of driving.

The Pioneer line lost $20 million a year before Amtrak shut down the route. It may not be realistic to expect this route to turn a profit or even break even. Then again, we subsidize all forms of transportation, from rails to roads. It’s certainly worth studying to see if the taxpayer cost of passenger rail is in line with the benefits.

In January 2007, U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg introduced S. 294, the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2007, which includes a provision to evaluate the Pioneer Route to determine “whether a level of passenger demand exists that would warrant consideration of reinstating the entire Pioneer Route service or segments of that service.”

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10 comments

  1. Enzi is so pathetic. Here is a guy who dodged the draft during Vietnam then told the Star Tribune a year or two ago that we lost because we didn’t fight long or hard enough.
    Savor the rank hypocrisy of this quote:
    “While rail service is good in theory, the reality is that the cost is rarely offset without digging into taxpayers’ wallets to provide heavy government subsidies.”
    Right now there is a debate in Wyoming whether to put tolls on I-80 because the trailer traffic does more damage to the road then the trailers currently pay in taxes to fix it. This means everyone effectively “subsidizes” the current transportation regime.
    Currently, the state of Wyoming pays in “subsidies” so some fly-by-night airline like Great Lakes will provide air service to Gillette or Casper.
    I don’t know if bringing that railline back is a good idea, but I can tell you that Enzi and his mini-me Barasso are perfectly happy with subsidies if they help their oilman and rancher buddies.

  2. I have to confess i’m not familiar with the Billings-NM high-speed rail proposal. Can anyone enlighten me?

  3. There has been some talk of a high speed rail running up the I-25 corridor.

  4. Sure would be a good thing to have the Pioneer running again. Rail transportation in America is a real need that has been neglected for far too long a time. Even my ol’ hoss thinks so…

    Mr. Mathew Frank, what can you do to help get the Pioneer going again and what can you suggest others might do to help?

  5. My family and I would ride the Pioneer From CA to WY. If it went all the way to Casper that would be even better.

  6. I loved the Pioneer. A trip to Colorado now entails dropping clear down to California and over and is not financially smart nor is it comfortable. I am absolutely praying for the Pioneer to be reinstated. I believe with proper advertising it could pay for itself.

  7. Pipe dreams about high speed rails from Wyoming to New Mexico are not going to solve anyone’s transportation problems! Amtrak’s Pioneer route is already proven, and could easily be re-established. Gas prices have taken a break, but we all know it’s temporary. In Idaho Falls we are blanketed this Christmas with ten inches of snow. People are stranded on I-15, I-86 and I-84 because they want nothing more than to spend time with family for the Holidays. A nice safe ride on an Amtrak train would be filled today! As taxpayers we are subsidizing nearly everything in this county, why not let us subsidize something we could use.

  8. Interest in this definitely is growing. This summer, ColoRail members made a survey of the entire route between Denver and Portland and have been circulating PowerPoint productions that show state by state the status of stations along the line. [The PowerPoint introduction to the Pioneer story is now on YouTube. Search for “Amtrak Pioneer” in their home page.]

    There are some big obstacles to overcome, most notably the backlog of maintenance needed for Amtrak equipment and the downgrading or deletion of some facilities by the Union Pacific.

    Most important will be that Democrats need to tell the new adminstration that the last two presidents of their party talked nice about Amtrak while slashing it. This is the last chance for Democrats to get it right and avoid defections to greener parties. They’ll have the support of many Republicans angry about the unbenign neglect of the past eight years.

  9. When gasoline is $25 a gallon, something that is not very far off, both automobile and air travel will be much less economically viable than they are today, and we will desperately need alteratives, of which there aren’t many, but rail probably could help somewhat.

    However, as I understand it, rail currently isn’t much more energy efficient than auto transportation, so we will need to make rail much more energy efficient- electrifying more Amtrak routes will probably be one of the things we will need to do.

    More routes like the Pioneer will clearly be needed as well.

  10. By the way: What in the world is this Billings to New Mexico high speed rail concept? Sounds like a practical joke. It makes the “bridge to nowhere” look like a brilliant public works project.