The stars may be aligning for a return of the Amtrak Pioneer passenger train to make a comeback, politicians and an Amtrak official say...

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The stars may be aligning for a return of the Amtrak Pioneer passenger train to make a comeback, politicians and an Amtrak official say.

The Pioneer route between Seattle and Salt Lake City was discontinued in 1997 after losing $20 million the previous year.

Although Amtrak has never returned a discontinued route to service, Don Saunders, Amtrak’s vice president for state and commuter partnerships, said passenger rail expansion is more likely now than it has been during his 20-year career.

Legislation will soon be presented in the U.S. House of Representatives to bring back the Pioneer, U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, told the Idaho State Journal.

Simpson said the House version calls for continuation of the route, rather than to simply study the route that was contained in a version approved by the U.S. Senate last year.

“I’d like to do more than just the study,” Simpson said. “I’m optimistic we can move this along and one day, hopefully not far from now, we can get the Pioneer route back.”

Under the Senate version, Amtrak would receive $11.4 billion over the next six years. The House version might involve a different dollar figure and require the resurrection the Pioneer and other routes Amtrak has eliminated through the years, Simpson said.

Amtrak President and CEO Alex Kummant has voiced strong support for the Pioneer feasibility study.

Legislation to bring the Pioneer back could be completed this year, Simpson said.

Amtrak started the Pioneer in 1977, about six years after Union Pacific got out of the passenger rail business.

Simpson said Congress has changed its mind about requiring Amtrak to pay for itself as the cost of gasoline continues to rise and airline ticket prices soar.

“The Pioneer went away because the ridership didn’t measure up to the cost to do it,” Simpson said. “But that was back when gas was a buck a gallon. I’d think that now you’d see an increased use of the Pioneer from when it was there last.”

Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, said he would prefer legislation to bring back the Pioneer, rather than a feasibility study of the route.

“If the House can succeed in including language that directs a reopening of the line, it’s a much preferable solution and I’m very supportive of that,”

Crapo agreed the climate toward passenger rail is different from in the 1990s, when Congress put funding restrictions on Amtrak, resulting in the rail service cutting the Pioneer and other routes.

Retiring U.S. Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, U.S. Rep. Bill Sali and Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter do not want to bring the Pioneer back without a feasibility study. Otter might be the toughest sell.

The governor’s position on mass transit is that it needs to pay for itself, Otter spokesman Jon Hanian said.

Saunders said if Congress passes legislation to bring back the Pioneer, the passenger service could return in the next three to five years.

It could take three years just to get the engines and passenger cars needed for the route, he said.

“We don’t have the cars for the Pioneer service. We don’t have any extra equipment left,” Saunders said. “Our equipment demand is at full capacity.”

Restarting the Pioneer would involve examining the old route and possibly making changes to it, he said.

It would take a cooperative effort from the federal government, communities and states along the Pioneer route, Amtrak and Union Pacific, Saunders said. And it would likely require state funding, as well as federal dollars, he said.

Saunders said Amtrak is interested in the Pioneer because of the two corridors that make up the route — Salt Lake City to Boise, and Nampa, Idaho, to Portland.

Amtrak believes there’s enough growth potential along both corridors to warrant further study, he said.

Passenger rail is a more energy-efficient form of travel than automobile or airliner, Saunders said. Coupled with congestion on U.S. highways and the inconvenience of air travel, it is the right time to push for new passenger-rail routes, Saunders said.