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Is the Pioneer doomed?

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martyd | Sep 23, 2009 12:30 PM

What a pleasure it was to ride Amtrak's Pioneer route, which ran from Salt Lake City to Boise, through Oregon to Portland and north to Seattle. The route operated from 1977 to 1997, hooking up with the California Zephyr to service riders in Colorado.

I remember one fabulous trip to LaGrande, Oregon, getting off at the old train station there, direct from Denver -- whereas now I fly into Boise and drive several hours to eastern Oregon in order to pay a visit. A long train ride with a sleeping berth is just about heaven for travelers. There's the soothing rhythm of wheels on tracks, the dining car with its bright white linen tablecloths, the club car with its easy camaraderie, and -- best of all -- lying on a sleeping berth watching the moon move in and out of clouds as you roll across the open country, drifting into sleep like a baby being rocked by mama.

Well, the Pioneer ceased service due to financial issues more than 10 years ago, and a feasibility study on reinstating the route (mandated by the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008) has just been released. The price tag is set between $379 million and $493 million -- including costs for track improvements, locomotives and rail cars and employee training.

As the Idaho Statesman put it,

Even Sen. Mike Crapo, the Idaho Republican who asked for the study, concedes that the projected costs are "higher than anticipated."

The new service would draw anywhere from 82,000 to 111,000 passengers per year, depending on which route is selected. Ticket and dining car revenues wouldn't be nearly enough to cover costs; operating subsidies would total at least $25 million a year.

The subsidies are a convenient but unfair target for Amtrak critics. Like the wheel, the subsidy is pretty much a transportation necessity. Taxpayers finance airport improvements and the Treasure Valley's spotty bus service. Boise Mayor Dave Bieter has hitched his streetcar proposal to federal stimulus dollars and local property taxes. Gas taxes pay to maintain interstates and state highways.

The question isn't whether to subsidize passenger rail. The question is whether the benefits justify the costs.

Amid the sticker shock, the feasibility study offers some words of encouragement. The Pioneer line would serve rural communities that have felt the brunt of rail, bus and airline cutbacks. And rail service provides a relatively green way to travel, 17 percent more fuel efficient than air travel and 21 percent more fuel efficient than driving. Frankly, both points carry more weight than the nostalgia argument. Ultimately, Amtrak service would have to prove its modern-day relevance -- to travelers and taxpayers alike.

The study even offers some advice about where Amtrak backers could find some startup money -- the federal economic stimulus plan, which dedicated $8 billion to high-speed rail and intercity passenger rail. The irony here is that Crapo, and the rest of Idaho's congressional delegation, opposed the $787 billion stimulus bill.

Amtrak conducted "extensive outreach" to a number of stakeholders during the study, including state departments of transportation, municipal governments, advocacy groups and other railroad companies. They found "a very high degree of regional interest in this study, and strong support for restoration of the Pioneer."

Crapo has posted a downloadable copy of the report on his website, http://crapo.senate.gov, along with information to offer public comments on the return of Amtrak’s Pioneer Route. Comments on Amtrak's preliminary study should be submitted by Oct. 1. You can submit comments through Crapo's Web site or mail them to Joseph H. Boardman; president and chief executive officer; Amtrak; 60 Massachusetts Ave., NE; Washington, DC 20002.

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