Do Utah and the West need more passenger trains? These groups make the argument

By Carter Williams,

This article was published by on August 21, 2022.

OGDEN — When it comes to interstate passenger trains, Utah doesn't have a ton of options.

Amtrak's California Zephyr cuts through Provo and Salt Lake City, as well as Helper and Green River on its way from Chicago to San Francisco. The Rocky Mountaineer, meanwhile, offers a scenic trip from Moab to Denver.

There's also Utah Transit Authority's FrontRunner, which runs between Ogden and Provo, to help make in-state connections.

However, with the federal government opening 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 look into more options to expand passenger rail access.

"Our ultimate vision is for a seamless transportation network," said Dan Bilka, the co-founder of the nonprofit rail advocacy organization All Aboard Northwest. "We don't see passenger rail as an end-all-be-all of transportation but as a crucial missing middle that really makes the other modes of transportation work well and effectively."

Bilka and Charlie Hamilton, the group'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 on a tour across the region, arriving in the Beehive State after providing similar presentations in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. They then departed to Colorado and Wyoming ahead of the Greater Northwest Passenger Rail Summit scheduled to be held in Billings, Montana.

A case for rail

Hamilton argues that passenger rail makes sense because close to one-third of the U.S. population doesn't drive, either because they are too young or too old, they may have disabilities that prevent them from driving, or they choose not to travel for financial or environmental reasons. At the same time, medical reasons may prevent people from flying if they are in need of going somewhere beyond local public transportation.

"This population is growing. We know that we'll always need cars but there definitely need to be alternatives," he said.

Passenger trains, he says, also have the ability to provide strong economic benefits for local communities. For instance, the Big Sky Rail Authority found last year that restoring the North Coast Hiawatha Trail passenger train route would result in $271 million in annual economic benefits in the seven states, including $40 million in Montana alone, according to NBC Montana.

A recent study conducted by the Rail Passengers Association also found similar rail routes can provide tens of millions of dollars in annual economic benefits.

These projects are expensive but can be cheaper than road projects, too. In an interview with the Washington Post last year, the top Virginia transportation official said it would cost about $12.5 billion to add a freeway lane in each direction from Washington, D.C. to Fredericksburg, Virginia. A train alternative, on the other hand, came with an estimated $3.7 billion price tag, causing the state to reevaluate its future transportation plans.

Trains also generally produce fewer overall emissions than cars or planes, according to reports and studies from the Association of American Railroads, the European Environment Agency and others.

There are some obvious constraints. For instance, it's generally faster to fly or drive. Google Maps estimates it takes about 15½ hours to travel by train from Salt Lake City to Sacramento, California, as compared to 9½ by car. It's an hour and 40 minutes by flight.

And with the current infrastructure the way it is in Utah, high-speed rail is likely not expected anytime soon.

"That's something we're very much in support of but it's very expansive and requires building pretty much all new infrastructure," said Mike Christensen, the president of the Utah Rail Passengers Association. "Unfortunately, looking at routes coming from Salt Lake City, there just aren't enough population centers close enough to make it high on the list of national high-speed priorities. ... It'll probably be 50 years until you see high-speed rail here."

Rebuilding a network

Building up commuter rail infrastructure at least gets the idea of high-speed trains rolling, along with all the benefits of trains. Yet there are also not a lot of passenger rail connections out there, especially in the West. All Aboard Northwest's vision is an expanded network throughout the region, using existing tracks.

"Up here in the greater Northwest region, there's a big void but people actually live out there too," Bilka said. "We say it's high time that people get on the map, and we see more and better services throughout our region."

This graphic shows where existing and desired passenger rail connections are in the northern section of the U.S. The yellow lines are existing routes while the blue lines represent existing lines that could be used for future routes. (Photo: All Aboard Northwest)This graphic shows where existing and desired passenger rail connections are in the northern section of the U.S. The yellow lines are existing routes while the blue lines represent existing lines that could be used for future routes. (Photo: All Aboard Northwest)

For Utah, this could mean routes as far south as Cedar City all the way up north to Logan and into Idaho, adding in connections to get Utahns to many other locations throughout the region currently impossible by rail, according to Christensen.

Bilka and Hamilton say passenger train growth has gone from a longshot to possible through money made available through the U.S. Department of Transportation, though communities and companies have to apply to get the money. Their tour through the region is aimed at highlighting ways for cities and states to get involved.

"The fact that there's that kind of money that's on the table for these projects is a real game-changer," Hamilton said. "We're looking at it and saying the opportunities are much, much better than they ever have been."

Representatives of Ogden attended the event at Union Station in Ogden on Tuesday afternoon because of the city's interest in the idea. The Utah Rail Passengers Association, which is working to advocate for more passenger rail connections within 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 looking to rail and other alternatives to help deal with future transportation concerns. But rail projects are complex enough that there is a learning curve and it may require partnerships with other states.

With federal money and benefits available, he's hoping that it will get the state to examine the idea more closely. He estimates that an option expanding Utah's network would cost in the range of $1 billion or more, but that unknown is also why he believes the state should at least conduct an analysis to pin down an actual cost and feasibility.

One of the biggest costs would be acquiring the trains for the system, which Christensen points out isn't like going to a car dealership. Train manufacturers only build when they have an order in place — and that wait can be years. Hamilton notes that there's been a growing effort to make an exchange system within states, which does help ease some of the availability and cost concerns.

But both groups agree that now is the time to consider passenger rail before the federal money train leaves the station.

"If we don't get our ducks in a row and apply for that funding, then it's just going to go to other states," Christensen said. "So we might as well grab onto those opportunities."