Subsidized passenger train ridership declines after derailment

An Amtrak Cascades train leaves Portland’s station in this file photo. A group of people who think 22 years is too long for Umatilla County and the rest of Northeastern Oregon to go without train service plans to meet Saturday at La Grande to talk about their campaign to get Amtrak back on our local rails.

Enough time has passed — 22 years — since the last Amtrak passenger train rolled to a stop in Baker City, La Grande or Pendleton that some people likely have only a hazy memory, if any at all, of seeing the train parked at the Pendleton Station on South Main and Frazer streets.

A group of people who think 22 years is too long for Umatilla County and the rest of Northeastern Oregon to go without train service plans to meet Saturday at La Grande to talk about their campaign to get Amtrak back on our local rails.

The Association of Oregon Rail and Transit Advocates (AORTA — railroads as transportation arteries, get it?) will meet from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Cook Memorial Library, 2006 Fourth St.

History — or at least the past 22 years of it — suggests their quest has more than a slightly quixotic flavor.

But however unlikely, their goal is reasonable.

Amtrak’s Pioneer route, which ran from Seattle to Chicago, passing through Pendleton, Baker City, La Grande and Ontario, among other stops, was canceled due to budget cuts. But Jon Nuxoll of Eugene, AORTA’s president, argues that the need for passenger trains has increased rather than receded since 1997.

He makes a compelling case.

Other forms of transportation haven’t rendered Amtrak superfluous in the past two decades.

Greyhound has only one daily bus on Interstate 84 from Portland to Boise, and one from Boise to Portland.

For scheduled passenger flights, then as now, we have to drive to Pendleton or Boise.

And the freeway has been more likely to close due to inclement weather and rashes of crashes over the past decade than was the case during the 1990s.

Amtrak is not a perfect solution to local transportation issues, to be sure.

It’s not the least expensive option. Riding from, say, Portland to Spokane would cost $93 to $219, depending on the type of seat.

And Amtrak is heavily subsidized by the federal government — close to $2 billion annually in recent years.

But taxpayers have been propping up Amtrak since long before the Pioneer route was canceled. And for the past 22 years, even while subsidies continued, Northeastern Oregon has been part of a gaping blank spot on the passenger rail service map. To the north, Amtrak’s Empire Builder runs between Seattle and Chicago, with connecting trains from Portland through the Columbia Gorge and the Tri-Cities, Washington. To the south, the California Zephyr rolls daily from San Francisco to Chicago by way of northern Nevada, Salt Lake City and Denver.

Since 1997 there has been an occasional flurry of interest, sometimes involving members of Congress, in reviving the Pioneer route, or at least a version of it.

In 2009, at the urging of lawmakers including Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden and Rep. Greg Walden, Amtrak compiled a preliminary report estimating the costs of restarting the Pioneer route. That report predicted annual operating losses ranging from $25 million for a Seattle to Salt Lake City route, to $35.3 million for a Portland to Denver train.

But after an absence of 22 years it’s difficult to predict how much pent-up demand there might be in our region for daily passenger trains. Costs and subsidies aside, environmental factors could play a role, as well, as studies have shown that trains are more efficient, using less energy per passenger mile, than buses, automobiles and airlines.

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