An Amtrak Capitol Limited train passing through Gaithersburg, Maryland on March 22, 2020. Rail advocates in Utah and the West are pushing for states in the region to explore more options to expand passenger rail access . (AJ Packer, Shutterstock)
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OGDEN — When it comes to interstate passenger trains, Utah doesn’t have a ton of options.
Amtrak’s California Zephyr runs through Provo and Salt Lake City, as well as Helper and Green River between Chicago and San Francisco. The Rocky Mountaineer, meanwhile, offers a scenic journey from Moab to Denver.
There’s also the Utah Transit Authority’s FrontRunner, which runs between Ogden and Provo, to help make connections in the state.
However, while the federal government opened up $66 billion in funds for passenger rail projects through last year’s infrastructure bill, rail advocates in Utah and the West are pushing for states in the region to consider more options for expanding passenger rail access.
“Our ultimate vision is of a seamless transportation network,” said Dan Bilka, co-founder of the nonprofit railroad advocacy organization All Aboard Northwest. “We don’t see passenger rail as the ultimate means of transport, but as a crucial missing link that really makes other modes of transport work efficiently and satisfactorily.”
Bilka and Charlie Hamilton, the band’s other co-founder, came to Utah on Tuesday for three events held in Provo, Ogden and Salt Lake City in the morning, afternoon and evening while touring across the region, arriving in Beehive State after providing similar presentations in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. They then departed for Colorado and Wyoming ahead of the Greater Northwest Passenger Rail Summit to be held in Billings, Montana.
A case for rail
Hamilton argues that passenger rail travel makes sense because nearly a third of the US population does not drive, either because they are too young or too old, they may have disabilities that prevent them from driving. or choose not to travel for financial reasons. or environmental reasons. At the same time, medical reasons may prevent people from flying if they need to go somewhere beyond local public transport.
“This population is growing. We know we will always need cars, but there absolutely must be alternatives,” he said.
Passenger trains, he says, also have the ability to provide strong economic benefits to local communities. For example, the Big Sky Rail Authority found last year that restoring the North Coast Hiawatha Trail passenger train line would result in annual economic benefits of $271 million across the seven states, including $40 million in the Montana only, according to NBC Montana.
A recent study by the Rail Passengers Association also found that similar rail routes can generate tens of millions of dollars in annual economic benefits.
These projects are expensive but can also be cheaper than road projects. In an interview with The Washington Post last year, Virginia’s top transportation official said it would cost about $12.5 billion to add a freeway lane in each direction from Washington, D.C. to Fredericksburg, in Virginia. An alternative to the train, on the other hand, cost an estimated $3.7 billion, forcing the state to reevaluate its future transportation plans.
Trains also generally produce fewer overall emissions than cars or airplanes, according to reports and studies from the Association of American Railroads, the European Environment Agency and others.
There are obvious constraints. For example, it is generally faster to fly or drive. Google Maps estimates that it takes about 15.5 hours to travel by train from Salt Lake City to Sacramento, California, compared to 9.5 hours by car. It’s a 1h40 flight.
And with the current infrastructure as it is in Utah, high-speed rail probably isn’t expected anytime soon.
“It’s something we’re very supportive of, but it’s very expensive and requires virtually all new infrastructure to be built,” said Mike Christensen, president of the Utah Rail Passengers Association. “Unfortunately, looking at the routes from Salt Lake City, there just aren’t enough population centers close enough to put it at the top of the national high-speed priority list. … It will probably take 50 years before you saw high-speed rail here.”
Rebuild a network
The construction of suburban railway infrastructure at least gives the idea of the running of high-speed trains, as well as all the advantages of trains. Still, there aren’t many passenger rail connections there, especially in the West. All Aboard Northwest’s vision is an extensive network throughout the region, using existing tracks.
“Here in the greater North West region there is a big void, but people are also living there,” Bilka said. “We’re saying it’s high time people were on the map, and we’re seeing more and better services across our region.”
For Utah, that could mean roads as far south as Cedar City all the way north to Logan and into Idaho, adding connections to get Utahns to many other places in the region currently not possible by road. of iron, according to Christensen.
Bilka and Hamilton say the growth of passenger trains has gone from far to possible thanks to the money made available by the US Department of Transportation, although communities and businesses must apply to get the money. Their tour through the region aims to highlight ways for cities and states to get involved.
“The fact that there’s this kind of money on the table for these projects is really game-changing,” Hamilton said. “We’re looking at it and saying the opportunities are much, much better than they’ve ever been.”
If we don’t line up and ask for this funding, it will just go to other states.
–Mike Christensen, president of the Utah Railroad Passengers Association
Representatives from Ogden attended the event at Union Station in Ogden on Tuesday afternoon due to the city’s interest in the idea. The Utah Rail Passengers Association, which works to advocate for more passenger rail connections in Utah, helped coordinate the three Utah events.
Given Utah’s growth and the Wasatch Front’s lack of space, Christensen said he’s noticed a growing interest in turning to rail and other alternatives to help deal with future transportation challenges. But rail projects are complex enough that there is a learning curve, and that may require partnerships with other states.
With federal money and benefits available, he hopes the state will take a closer look at the idea. He estimates that a Utah grid expansion option would cost around $1 billion or more, but that unknown is also why he thinks the state should at least conduct an analysis to determine an actual cost. and feasibility.
One of the biggest costs would be acquiring the trains for the system, which Christensen says isn’t like going to a car dealership. Train manufacturers only build when they have an order in place – and that wait can take years. Hamilton notes that there has been a growing effort to create an interstate trading system, which helps alleviate some of the availability and cost concerns.
But both groups agree that now is the time to consider passenger rail before the train of federal money leaves the station.
“If we don’t line up and ask for this funding, it will just go to other states,” Christensen said. “So might as well seize those opportunities.”