Northwest rail buffs signal for return of Oregon Trail Amtrak route to Boise

Oct 22, 2019

As scenic train rides go, it would be a plum ticket. Pacific Northwest passenger rail buffs are gathering in La Grande, Oregon, this Saturday to drum up support to bring back part of a long ago canceled Amtrak route, the Pioneer.

The old Amtrak route started in Seattle, went south to Portland, then east through the Columbia River Gorge to Boise, and then to Salt Lake City, with an onward connection to Chicago.

A volunteer-led nonprofit called the Association of Oregon Rail and Transit Advocates (AORTA) proposes to revive at least the Portland to Boise segment. Association president Jon Nuxoll said the Eastern Oregon Rail Summit his group is hosting this Saturday will kick off what is sure to be a long-term project.

"We think the need is there more than it has ever been. There is just one bus now a day between Portland and Boise," Nuxoll said in an interview. "We think that it is important to have another option for winter driving, for students, for people needing to get to Boise or Portland for health care. We've heard that from an awful lot of people."

The Amtrak Pioneer route through eastern Oregon and southern Idaho was a money-loser for many years before it was cancelled in 1997. Nuxoll guessed the revived segment would require a state subsidy to operate.

Map of the Amtrak Pioneer route from 1977.
Credit Amtrak, via Wikimedia Commons

Amtrak was still formulating a comment about whether it would be open to a revival of the line as of our deadline.

Amtrak's current long-distance lines across the American West, including the Empire Builder from Chicago to Seattle/Portland, are its top money-losers. The long-distance routes are also plagued by poor on-time performance, largely caused by interference from freight trains on shared tracks. The Trump administration has tried several times to reduce Amtrak's federal subsidy, but Congressional budget writers reverse the proposed cuts every time -- in part to preserve a modicum of train service to rural towns that have few other public transportation options.

Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson, who previously headed up Delta Air Lines and Northwest Airlines, favors a restructuring of the railroad's route map to emphasize more frequent service on short distance corridors between growing cities and "megaregions." But the railroad's leadership has moved slowly on restructuring because of predictable pushback from rural areas and lawmakers.

Nuxoll, who teaches high school history in Eugene, said a medium-distance route between growing Portland and booming Boise could fit with Amtrak's future strategy.

"That's part of the practical considerations," Nuxoll told public radio.

In the 1990s, a trip from Boise to Portland on the Pioneer train took approximately 11 hours. The distance by rail is just under 500 miles.

AORTA's strategy to launch its proposal down the tracks involves drumming up constituent letters to state and federal lawmakers. Another initial step is to find a sponsor in the Oregon Legislature who could champion a bill to do a state study of costs, ridership and what track owner Union Pacific might need to facilitate coexistence of passenger and freight trains on the route.

Scheduled speakers at Saturday's summit include AORTA board members, Oregon DOT Rail Division administrator Hal Gard, Baker County Commissioner Mark Bennett and several members of All Aboard Washington, a sister rail advocacy nonprofit.

Bennett is slated to review past, unsuccessful efforts to revive passenger rail service in the Oregon Trail corridor. All Aboard Washington is working to bring back cross-state passenger train service over Stampede Pass, which would connect Seattle and Spokane via Ellensburg, the Yakima Valley and Tri-Cities. Nuxoll said the advocacy campaign in Washington state could be instructive for Oregon.
 
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What: Public forum to "Bring Amtrak Back to Boise and the Blues"
When: 10:00 a.m. - 2:00 p.m., Saturday, October 26
Where: Cook Memorial Library, 2006 Fourth St., La Grande, Oregon
Cost: Free and open to the public
For more info: AORTA Facebook page