What Will It Take For Train Travel To Return To Southern Idaho?

Jun 8, 2017

The Boise Depot is one of those places Boiseans take visitors to show off their town. The early 20th Century Spanish architecture stands out and is a great backdrop for weddings and parties.

But the one thing you haven’t found at the depot for 20 years? Passenger trains.

Colin Falconer has long wondered why that is. Falconer is originally from Seattle and used to take the Amtrak to northern Idaho to swim in lakes with friends when he was a kid. He loved being able to watch the scenery go by, and goof around in the aisles with his buddies.

“However, when we would come to southern Idaho to visit family, we would always have to drive. Which was always not as exciting, to put it mildly," Falconer laughs. "It was something we didn’t look forward to.”

He also lived in Italy for a time and remembers fondly how easy it was to hop on a train and end up in a totally different European city the next day. Now as an adult, Falconer lives in Boise and wishes he could take the train like he used to in northern Idaho.

So, why can’t he?

Colin Falconer used to take the train to Sandpoint, Idaho, the only operational station in the Gem State.
Credit Frankie Barnhill / Boise State Public Radio

“This is very interesting and actually I’m glad to see that this is a very popular question because it’s one that I’ve been engaged on for years now,” says Senator Mike Crapo, R-Idaho. 

Crapo has pushed for the train to return to southern Idaho. The old Pioneer route originated in Denver and went through Cheynne, Boise and Portland on up to Seattle.  But as a cost-saving measure in 1997, Amtrak selected the Pioneer Route to close.

“I disagreed with that decision at the time," Crapo says. "Not because I thought that Amtrak should not be getting more fiscally responsible, but because Amtrak had picked some of the lines in smaller population areas that were still viable and were not contributing to their deficits.”

Working with Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, Crapo had Amtrak study the feasibility of bringing the train back. The resulting 2009 study included a look at ridership and route options. But in the end it came down to $400 million the train company says it needs to get the line running again. And during the Great Recession, this wasn’t exactly welcome news for budget drafters.

“And so, although I disagreed with them on the ultimate numbers," the senator says, "in the end it still came down to the fact that the dollars weren’t there in either the state and local budgets, or for the Amtrak budget to reopen the line.”

Money and Politics in Train Travel

But according to Amtrak spokesperson Marc Magliari, things are looking up for rail travel in other parts of the country.

“The trend for Amtrak ridership nationally continues to be up and strong,” Magliari says.

Magliari says millennials are leading this trend – millennials like Colin Falconer who don’t own or like to use a car. According to Goldman Sachs research, only 15 percent of this age group think car ownership is important.

Magliari says recently some federal funding has become available for trains, if the political will is there. He points to Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Florida as a model for gathering support and funding when they banded together to bring back service after tracks were damaged from Hurricane Katrina.

“When you pull – in that case – four states together and you have that kind of support, plus a funding mechanism in Congress, it gives you a way forward. There was no way forward like that in 2008, 2009.”

But he cautions that repairing infrastructure along the route will take significant investment.

Amtrak estimated in 2009 that it would take about $400 million to reinstate the train that used to stop at the Boise Depot.
Credit Frankie Barnhill / Boise State Public Radio

Standing alongside the tracks at the Boise Depot, Colin Falconer is happy to muse a bit about why trains are so special.

“It’s a lot more communal and it fosters a good sense of people being able to bond, rather than just being stuck in their own automobile," he says.

For now, Falconer will have to rely on his memories of the train – until a political and financial solution is found to bring the southern Idaho train line back.

This story is part of Wanna Know Idaho, a new listener-generated project at KBSX. Last month, we asked you – our readers – what you’re curious about in the region. We received a bunch of great questions, and you voted on your favorite (Colin Falconer's question). We want to hear more of your ideas. Ask your question below!

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Find reporter Frankie Barnhill on Twitter @FABarnhill

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