Back on track

Written by Bill Rautenstrauch, The Observer August 10, 2011 07:49 pm

VISITORS TO SATURDAY MORNING’S Farmers Market were able to receive information about the current effort to restore Amtrak passenger train service in Eastern Oregon from David Arnold, left, including an opportunity to sign a petition to help draw the attention of key state and national legislators to the issue. Amtrak’s Pioneer train began service between Chicago and Seattle, via Portland, in 1983 but ended service in 1997, leaving huge gaps in Amtrak’s coverage of the western U.S. According to Arnold it’s not a matter of “if” the service will be restored but “when,” and getting the attention of the key legislators will only speed up the “when.” For more information, log on to the Pioneer website at www.pioneertrain.com. CHRIS BAXTER / The Observer
VISITORS TO SATURDAY MORNING’S Farmers Market were able to receive information about the current effort to restore Amtrak passenger train service in Eastern Oregon from David Arnold, left, including an opportunity to sign a petition to help draw the attention of key state and national legislators to the issue. Amtrak’s Pioneer train began service between Chicago and Seattle, via Portland, in 1983 but ended service in 1997, leaving huge gaps in Amtrak’s coverage of the western U.S. According to Arnold it’s not a matter of “if” the service will be restored but “when,” and getting the attention of the key legislators will only speed up the “when.” For more information, log on to the Pioneer website at www.pioneertrain.com. CHRIS BAXTER / The Observer

La Grande man works to restore Amtrak passenger train service to Eastern Oregon

If Dave Arnold and friends have anything to say about it, the Pioneer’s going to rise again.

Arnold, a retired college psychology teacher and lifetime railroad buff, is out meeting with the public these days, talking up restoration of the regional passenger rail service that was discontinued in 1997.

The La Grande resident, a conductor and licensed railroad engineer, passionately believes that bringing back Amtrak’s Pioneer run is not only the right thing to do, but the best thing.

“You discuss rail transit with people out here and they get a hopeful look in their eye. They say they’d rather take the train to Portland or Boise than drive. You hear it not only from older people, but from college students, too,” he said.

From 1977 to 1997, the Pioneer ran between Seattle and Salt Lake City. A connection with the California Zephyr made it possible for people to travel by train from Seattle all the way to Chicago.

Financial considerations, though, led to cutbacks in the Pioneer schedule, and finally the end of the service. The last Pioneer ran on May 10, 1997.

Almost from the day the run was scrubbed, people have been trying to get it back. A major supporter is the Association of Oregon Rail and Transit Advocates. Arnold is an active member of that group, and also of a sub-group called the Pioneer Restoration Organization.

“We talk about all kinds of transit issues. Amtrak and funding for the Pioneer always comes up,” he said.

 Arnold said he was inspired to launch a grassroots effort to revive the Pioneer after helping AORTA with the National Train Day Celebration May 9 at Portland’s Union Station.

“About 9,000 people showed up for the event. It was like Grand Central Station during rush hour,” Arnold, who helped staff AORTA’s booth, said.

He said he talked with people living in the Portland-to- Boise corridor who think just like him — they want to see the Pioneer come back.

 He decided then to take the case to the public. So far, he has run a booth during two sessions of the La Grande Farmer’s Market, and gathered more than 250 signatures on a petition in support of the Pioneer.

He said he is concentrating his efforts on restoration of rail service from Portland to Boise, service that would use infrastructure already in place.

“We’re proposing taking what we’ve got and developing a good long distance rail service between Portland and Boise, one that would run in a timely manner two times a day,” he said.

Arnold has been handing out literature, and making sure people know who to contact in Washington, D.C., where the authority for restoring the run rests.

“The idea is to raise the buzz of conversation,” he said. “Support from Congress is important, but it’s necessary to put a public face on this.”

In 2008, the U.S. Congress passed the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act, which included a provision directing Amtrak to study restoration of the Pioneer route.

 The study doesn’t rule out a rebirth for the Pioneer, but does project some high costs. It says the new route would serve between 82,000-111,000 passengers a year. Ticket sales and dining car revenues wouldn’t cover expenses, and the study estimates the line would need about $25 million a year in subsidies.

Railroads, Arnold said, have always needed to be subsidized, and the Federal Railroad Administration has money obligated to improve the rail systems in California, Washington, Oregon and other states.

 Arnold said a Congressional condition for restoring the line is that fare box revenues cover 50 percent of the operating costs.

He believes that’s an achievable goal. He said he thinks there always was sufficient ridership on the line.

“What the public heard was, the Pioneer wasn’t paying its way. Not true, the ridership was there,” he said.

According to Arnold, the 2008 study, prepared by Union Pacific Railroad, called for infrastructure improvements that wouldn’t be necessary to restore the Pioneer. He said it’s a flawed study that includes inflated costs, and he believes another should be done.

 Arnold said the Mississippi-based National Center for Intermodal Transportation would do such a study for $50,000.

“Part of what I’m doing is finding the funds for that,” he said.

Like other Pioneer advocates, Arnold believes restoring the run would stimulate tourism, create jobs and  improve the regional economy. The time is right, he said.

“With high fuel costs and a shift in thinking about driving a car all the time, this discussion coming back is timely,” he said.

Arnold said Pioneer advocates are grateful for support from federal elected officials, including Rep. Phylis King and Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho, and Sen. Ron Wyden and Rep. Greg Walden in Oregon.

He said he is urging people to contact those officials and others, including Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, and express support. He said contact by postal mail or fax is essential.

“The emails don’t get read,” he said.

He said he believes that sooner or later, the Pioneer will return.

“We’re hopeful it’s not a matter of if, but when,” he said “It’s do-able in two years, though I don’t know if that will happen.”

Those wanting to know more about the Pioneer Restoration Organization should visit www.pioneertrain.com on the Web, or contact Arnold at 541-786-2080.