North Coast Hiawatha Report, thoughts from a Railroad Veteran – Sandpoint Train Station (Sandpoint Train Depot)
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North Coast Hiawatha Report, thoughts from a Railroad Veteran

I recently received an email that contained a thoughtful summary and grounded opinion of the recent North Coast Hiawatha (NCH) study/report that was released by Amtrak about a week ago. With permission, I decided to post those comments here to help promote further discussion about the proposed NCH route.

To follow are comments from Mark Meyer who is a native of Cut Bank, Montana and has been a long-time rail passenger advocate. He has worked for the Burlington Northern and BNSF railroads for 31 years and is currently in the Locomotive Utilization department in Fort Worth, Texas. His opinions about this report do not reflect any of those of BNSF. Mark is familiar with the flow of freight trains on the BNSF system and worked 14 years as a train dispatcher. During his years in Billings, Montana and Seattle, Washington, he even dispatched part of the territory over which a North Coast Hiawatha would operate in Montana.

Enjoy!

North Coast Hiawatha Route Map 1979

North Coast Hiawatha Route Map 1979, click for a larger view.

Are you in pricetag shock over the $1 billion proposed cost to reinstate the North Coast Hiawatha? Perhaps, but in my opinion, the biggest “sticker shock” is that this “study” cost the taxpayers $1 million and only seemed to create more questions, mostly due to its not being sufficiently thorough.

Some thoughts and questions I have:

Why is the cost for equipment based on six sets when the proposed schedule can be done in five?

Turnaround time in Seattle is about the same as that of the Empire Builder, so why figure six? In reality, I believe the schedule to be a best-case scenario, but it is an inconsistency.

Why does the proposed schedule show the train stopping at Paradise, Montana and East Auburn, Washington? Paradise was a stop in 1979 (the last year of passenger service on the route) and for years before, but that was because it was a former railroad division point. Not the case now.

Since all stations along the route would need to be constructed and or greatly modified, and that the basic cost for at station is projected to cover only a platform and little else (more on that later), logic would dictate that station stops could be anyplace, regardless of previous locations half a century ago. For instance, Thompson Falls would be much more logical for stop than Paradise.

Why does the proposed schedule show the train stopping at East Auburn? East Auburn was a suburban stop in Northern Pacific days for Tacoma passengers lasted as an Amtrak stop until 1981. It never was much…just a platform and shelter, that is not usable today. But today, such a train could stop in downtown Auburn at the Sound Transit station. Why does the study not make use of existing facilities? (Another could be a suburban Minneapolis stop at the new Northstar commuter rail station in Coon Rapids.)

Why does the proposed schedule show a stop at Sandpoint Jct., ID instead of Sandpoint? Could this be a harbinger of Amtrak’s desire to discontinue the current downtown Sandpoint stop?

With a few exceptions, why does the proposed schedule so closely mirror that of the last North Coast Hiawatha schedule of 1979? Just a coincidence? Why are there no new station stops (other than where the train takes a different route, such as via Helena and Yakima)? When the Empire Builder was a BN train in 1971, it didn’t stop in places like Stanley, Browning, Essex, or Leavenworth, but now it does. With a similar mandate to link communities along the Northern Tier, a North Coast Hiawatha should and could do the same. For instance, why stop the train midway between Mandan and Dickinson (Glen Ullin, to serve the relatively – by North Dakota standards – cities of Beulah and Hazen)? Or a seasonal stop for North Dakota’s only National Park (and yes, the highway sign on I-94 calls it “Historic Medora”)? The people in Townsend, Montana have hinted they’d like to be an intermediate stop between Bozeman and Helena, and Garrison could serve Deer Lodge, Butte, and Anaconda. No need to stop at Paradise, but an ex-NP telegrapher told me of how lots of people from the Mission Valley used to get on and off the NP “Mainstreeter” at Ravalli, Montana. While it’s true that the more stations, the greater the cost, it’s also true that the more stations, the more interest and support.

With regard to stations, the $17.6 million seems inadequate. There are currently no stations along the route which can handle a passenger train today (other than those already served by other trains). According to the proposed schedule, the train will serve 17 “new” stations. The $17.6 million cost means about $1 million per station, which won’t buy much. The new “Icicle” station at Leavenworth, Washington cost about $1 million, which bought an ADA-compliant platform, parking, and lighting. Amtrak is throwing around figures of millions (though it could be done for about $.6 million) to fix the station at Sandpoint, Idaho. So, one has to wonder, how realistic are these proposed station costs? Clearly, they’re all planned to be unstaffed, washroomless facilities without heat in areas that are famous for being without heat in the winter (about -40 degrees worth in Jamestown, ND comes to mind), but is that what the communities want or will tolerate?

The study should have gone into some elaboration about current station facilities, and whether they would at all usable for a passenger train. Current station buildings along the route run the entire range from Jamestown, ND where there is no station remaining, to places like Miles City and Bozeman that are in such bad shape they might as well not be standing at all, to places like Billings and Missoula where they have been significantly renovated for use by the communities and businesses to places like Glendive and Forsyth where they are still used by the freight railroad. How receptive are these communities and the current owners of the structures to allow them to again to be used for their original purpose. Did those making this study even ask? The study overall appears to assign many of the same costs to all locations, regardless of the current infrastructure.

The report mentions the cost of staffing the train, but doesn’t elaborate, and doesn’t specifically state the costs of maintaining crew bases (lockers, faxes, etc.), or where they’ll be. The Empire Builder westbound changes crews at St. Cloud and next at Minot. There is significant schedule padding inbound from the previous station as well as dwell at Minot proper. There is dwell at Havre for fueling and padding en route to the next crew change point at Shelby. The proposed North Coast Hiawatha schedule shows station dwell between St. Paul and Livingston, Montana. One can guess that there is minor padding at Mandan and Billings, but nothing as Amtrak and BNSF require on the Empire Builder route, so this seems unrealistic. Where are the proposed crew change locations and the home and away-from-home terminals?

How “etched in stone” is the schedule in the study? The study indicates that many of the capital improvements are negotiable, so could that mean that a slower train is possible (and less costly)? If so, what are the costs?

The schedule is way too fast, in my opinion (especially between Ellensburg and East Auburn, or “Aubun” as the proposal indicates, where the average speed, over the mountains and all, is over 122 MPH, an example of poor proofreading of the final product), and that increased the price of the service dramatically. It appears that Amtrak asked, “How much would it cost to run the train (nearly) as fast as we did before?” Even if the schedule as presented in the report is attainable by the millions and millions of dollars of infrastructure improvements, it still lacks station dwell that is demanded of the Empire Builder route. That in itself makes the schedule too fast. I am curious whether Amtrak could have quoted a lesser amount by proposing a slower schedule? On a long distance train such as this, speed is not that important, as is evidenced by the average speed of other western long distance Amtrak trains:

  • Empire Builder, Chicago-Seattle: westbound 47.76 MPH; eastbound 48.73 MPH.
  • California Zephyr, Chicago-Emeryville: westbound 46.73 MPH; eastbound 47.19 MPH
  • Southwest Chief, Chicago-Los Angeles: westbound 52.47 MPH; eastbound 52.98 MPH
  • Texas Eagle, Chicago-San Antonio: southbound 40.57 MPH; eastbound 42.28 MPH
  • Sunset Limited, New Orleans-Los Angeles: westbound 42.67 MPH; eastbound 42.98 MPH
  • Coast Starlight, Seattle-Los Angeles: southbound 39.06 MPH; northbound 39.91 MPH

The North Coast Hiawatha (as proposed) is 46.51 MPH westbound and 46.73 MPH eastbound, which would still be faster than most western long distance trains, but speed is not all that important for long distance trains which are for the most part slower than driving and of course slower than flying. This would certainly be the case along the North Coast Hiawatha route in that many of the communities have air service (but not directly paralleling the train’s route in most cases), and because most of the route is paralleled by interstate highways. But since many choose the train for comfort and convenience, a longer schedule would be of little consequence.

Today, Greyhound is about 4.5 faster between Missoula and Seattle than the proposed schedule, but 10.6 hours seems like an eternity to most people anway.

And finally, here’s my proposed schedule. It’s slower than the proposed schedule in the study, but still well in the ballpark compared to other Amtrak long distance trains (about 44 MPH).

This route also has the advantage that its route is scenic enough and that it would provide service between a sufficient number of city pairs currently lacking direct service that even reducing the overall speed to something like the Texas Eagle or Coast Starlight might be a good tradeoff to all the money that would be required to achieve the proposed schedule.

The North Coast Hiawatha

Chicago-Milwaukee-St. Paul-Fargo-Bismarck-

Billings-Helena-Missoula-Spokane-Yakima-Seattle

9

Train number

10

Daily

Frequency of Operation

Daily

Read down

Read up

915 AM

Dp

Chicago, IL (CT)

Ar

900 PM

939 AM

Dp

Glenview, IL

Ar

822 PM

1055 AM

Dp

Milwaukee, WI

Ar

717 PM

1205 PM

Dp

Columbus, WI (Madison)

Dp

607 PM

1234 PM

Dp

Portage, WI

Dp

537 PM

1252 PM

Dp

Wisconsin Dells, WI

Dp

519 PM

130 PM

Dp

Tomah, WI

Dp

438 PM

214 PM

Dp

La Crosse, WI

Dp

357 PM

250 PM

Dp

Winona, MN (Rochester)

Dp

321 PM

352 PM

Dp

Red Wing, MN

Dp

204 PM

530 PM

Ar

St. Paul/Minneapolis, MN

Dp

100 PM

615 PM

Dp

St. Paul/Minneapolis, MN

Ar

1215 PM

640 PM

Dp

Coon Rapids, MN-Northstar Sta.

Dp

1125 AM

740 PM

Dp

St. Cloud, MN

Dp

1030 AM

842 PM

Dp

Staples, MN

Dp

917 AM

938 PM

Dp

Detroit Lakes, MN

Dp

817 AM

1035 PM

Dp

Fargo, ND-Moorhead, MN

Dp

720 AM

1155 PM

Dp

Valley City, ND

Dp

600 AM

1235 AM

Dp

Jamestown, ND

Dp

520 AM

230 AM

Dp

Bismarck, ND

Dp

330 AM

300 AM

Ar

Mandan, ND

Dp

315 AM

330 AM

Dp

Mandan, ND (CT)

Ar

245 AM

325 AM

Dp

Glen Ullin, ND (MT)

Dp

1230 AM

435 AM

Dp

Dickinson, ND

Dp

1135 PM

s525 AM

Dp

Historic Medora, ND

Dp

s1045 PM

700 AM

Dp

Glendive, MT

Dp

925 PM

830 AM

Dp

Miles City, MT

Dp

755 PM

930 AM

Dp

Forsyth, MT

Dp

655 PM

1130 AM

Ar

Billings, MT

Dp

455 PM

1155 AM

Dp

Billings, MT

Ar

430 PM

1245 PM

Dp

Columbus, MT

Dp

255 PM

200 PM

Dp

Livingston, MT

Dp

155 PM

250 PM

Dp

Bozeman, MT

Dp

1255 PM

500 PM

Dp

Helena, MT

Dp

1045 AM

645 PM

Dp

Garrison, MT

Dp

850 AM

800 PM

Ar

Missoula, MT

Dp

745 AM

830 PM

Dp

Missoula, MT

Ar

715 AM

945 PM

Dp

Ravallli, MT

Dp

600 AM

1105 PM

Dp

Thompson Falls, MT (MT)

Dp

440 AM

1140 PM

Dp

Sandpoint, ID (PT)

Dp

205 AM

130 AM

Ar

Spokane, WA

Dp

1250 AM

200 AM

Dp

Spokane, WA

Ar

1220 AM

315 AM

Dp

Ritzville, WA

Dp

1045 PM

445 AM

Dp

Pasco-Richland-Kennewick, WA

Dp

925 PM

610 AM

Dp

Toppenish, WA

Dp

740 PM

640 AM

Dp

Yakima, WA

Dp

715 PM

740 AM

Dp

Ellensburg, WA

Dp

615 PM

1010 AM

Dp

Enumclaw, WA – Kanaskat Station

Dp

340 PM

1040 AM

Dp

Auburn, WA –Sound Transit Station

Dp

315 PM

1145 AM

Ar

Seattle, WA (PT)

Dp

245 PM

.

- Mark Meyer

Be sure to also check out the related post North Coast Hiawatha (NCH) Passenger Rail Study, Amtrak route report for additional thoughts on the proposed route.

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