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A non-profit organization is advocating for the return of passenger rail service in rural regions

Amtrak's Empire Builder at King Street Station in Seattle, Wash.
Amtrak's Empire Builder at King Street Station in Seattle, Wash. Amtrak took over intercity passenger rail service in 1971, providing service on a significantly reduced scale than had once been provided by private railroad companies, who often lost money on providing passenger services.

All Aboard Northwest is a 501(c)(4) non-profit public policy and advocacy organization that is advocating for expanding passenger rail service to underserved or unserved communities in the Pacific Northwest, the Mountain West, and the Midwest. Formally launched earlier this year, it’s involved in lobbying efforts, community engagement and education, in addition to conducting research on how passenger access would affect communities.

“Our group kind of started informally, just us trying to dialogue as a regioninstead of being stuck in our state styles [of only focusing on one state],” said Dan Bilka, President of All Aboard Northwest. “That’s why we started probably almost two and a half years ago, just having those informal dialogues from Minnesota to [the] City of Boise, [to] over in Washington [state].”

Currently, Wyoming and South Dakota arethe only two states in the continental U.S. that aren’t served directly byAmtrak or other passenger rail operators, thoughWyoming is served by Amtrak’sThruway Connecting Services, which are non-rail forms of transportation that connect customers to rail-served stations.

“One of the key routes through Wyoming that should be looked at is thePioneer Route which ran up from Denver to Cheyenne west along theOverland Route to be able to serve there,” said Bilka. “So, it’s a good building block but we want to be able to go beyond that to start looking at things.”

Once several major Class I railroads served Wyoming communities large and small, almost all of which offered passenger service. Many Wyoming communities haven’t had passenger service for over 50 years. All Aboard Northwest’sproposals have sought to change that. This includes connecting the state’s larger population centers as well as the smaller communities in between. Recentcommunity information events throughout All Aboard Northwest’s territory have generally indicated support for passenger service.

“They [communities] really are feeling very cut off because of the fact that they don’t have the sorts of opportunities to get to other places that would have been true many decades ago,” said Charlie Hamilton, a member ofAll Aboard Washington, a group located in Seattle that’s affiliated with All Aboard Northwest.

Hamilton also said that he’s found that younger people who have moved away from rural communities, often for college and have returned to rural areas, have voiced support for passenger trains due to a lack of other viable transportation options that exist in many of these communities. He said passenger trains provide a vital link to cities and those who need the amenities that they often provide.

“One thing that people think about, particularly in small places, is how do you get medical facilities and services,” he said. “We have stories of places where the local hospital is no longer there and so if somebody needs heart surgery, they have to go to the big city, and that’s not very convenient when [it’s] the winter and things are closed down.”

Bilka said the funding for expanding passenger routes would likely be a mix of public and private investment, including state and thefederal government, as well as the involvement of local economic development associations and the major railroads that passenger trains would run on. The Biden administration has stated its support ofexpanding passenger rail service.

Hamilton added that local communities, some of whom still have existing passenger rail infrastructure from decades ago, would provide additional benefits in the form of stations, depots, and other associated facilities as it wouldn’t be necessary to construct them.

Some of the logistics of their plans are still being worked out. Who would be responsible for operating these trains has yet to be determined and what the involvement of the private sector, local communities, and state and the federal government has also yet to be better defined. But there is hope that an expanded passenger rail network could begin operating sometime within this decade.

“Like I tell my buddies throughout Wyoming and in the greater region, just because you have four-wheel drive, does not mean you have four-wheel stop,” Bilka said. “It’s a critical lifeline for people and [an] option to be able to use if you need to be able to get from one place to another place.”

TheCity of Sheridan and theWashakie County Commission are two entities that have expressed interest in the All Aboard Northwest’splans.

Hugh Cook is Wyoming Public Radio's Northeast Reporter, based in Gillette. A fourth-generation Northeast Wyoming native, Hugh joined Wyoming Public Media in October 2021 after studying and working abroad and in Washington, D.C. for the late Senator Mike Enzi.
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