Zack Willhoite and Jim Hamre, who died in Monday’s train derailment, were both passionate advocates for rail travel. Both were riding on the train to experience the inaugural service of the new Amtrak route.
Two of the men killed in Monday’s Amtrak train derailment near Olympia were longtime rail advocates, who worked in transportation, spent their free time pushing for better train service and traveled the country and the world to ride on new train lines.
Zack Willhoite, 35, and Jim Hamre, 61, close friends, were riding on the inaugural trip of Amtrak’s new Seattle-to-Portland service along a rebuilt inland track when it derailed Monday morning. They’d also ridden last week on what was to be the last service on the old coastal route.
After Monday’s crash, Amtrak temporarily rerouted its service back to the coastal route.
Both men focused their lives, to a large extent, on public transportation. Hamre traveled the world — Austria, Switzerland and Australia, among other places — to ride train lines. Willhoite bought an old Pierce Transit bus to take on weekend joy rides around Tacoma.
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Both men were volunteer board members of All Aboard Washington, which advocates for more and better passenger rail service in Washington state.
“They were near if not best friends,” said Harvey Bowen, president of All Aboard Washington. “They would participate together in a lot of the work we do to help bring better passenger trains to Washington. The train that they were riding on was an example of the work that they had been doing.”
Both men made transportation their careers as well.
Willhoite worked for Pierce Transit, where he was a customer-service specialist. He had worked for the transit agency since 2008, after several years as a temporary employee for the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT).
“He has always been deeply appreciated and admired by his colleagues, and played an important role at our agency,” Pierce Transit said in a statement.
Hamre retired in 2011 after 33 years with WSDOT, where he was an IT manager.
“He was a professional who helped guide the Olympic Region through deploying and delivering key information-technology systems that we still use today,” said John Wynands, WSDOT’s administrator in the Olympic Region. “It was a role he embraced with enthusiasm and good humor.”
Hamre had been involved with rail advocacy and All Aboard Washington for decades, going back to the early 1980s when the organization was known as the Washington Association of Railroad Passengers.
“If he was not a member the very first day, he was a member within the first couple years,” Bowen said. “He spent his life advocating for these issues and it’s a tragedy that he would die this way.”
Monday’s derailment came during the inaugural trip for the Point Defiance Bypass, a brand-new section of track on Amtrak’s Cascades route. The new section of track and eight new locomotives were part of an $181 million project intended to make the trip between Seattle and Portland faster and more reliable.
The issue was part of the life work of both men.
Carl Fowler, a longtime friend of both, met Hamre in 1981 at a meeting about improving rail service between Seattle and Portland.
He met Willhoite in the late 1990s and was effusive in his praise of both men as advocates and fans of rail travel.
“Often people who passionately care about a cause come off as sort of nutty kooks, but Jim and Zack were really, one, wonderful people and two, professionals,” Fowler said. “They saw an issue that nobody thought had any consequence and they stuck to it, not just doggedly, but creatively.”
For decades, before retirement, Fowler ran a sort of travel agency for rail fans, organizing vacations around train routes.
Both Hamre and Willhoite went on rail vacations around the country and the world. Hamre went on dozens of trips, sometimes as a client and sometimes as a second trip leader, Fowler said.
“They went with me on tours I led to Europe and the world,” Fowler said.
Both men were members of the Rail Passengers Association, a national group that advocates for Amtrak and commuter-rail passengers.
Hamre, a Puyallup resident, was also a board member.
“Jim was among the country’s most-respected and effective rail advocates and a good friend and mentor to me,” said Jim Mathews, president of the Rail Passengers Association. “I will miss his counsel, and our community is poorer for his loss.”
Hamre began working on railroads in the 1970s, while he was a student at Washington State University, the Rail Passengers Association said.
Willhoite, who was recently married and lived in Spanaway, was also passionate about buses. He ran a blog, busdude.com, and the title Busdude evolved into an informal nickname, co-workers said.
In 2004, Willhoite paid $1,900 at auction for a 1990 bus that was used by Pierce Transit before it was retired after 13 years in service.
He tried to drive it at least once a week, he wrote, as “buses do not like to sit for long.”
“#427’s retired life of leisure consists mostly of joy rides on the weekends in her old stomping grounds of Tacoma where she still gets mistaken for an in-service bus,” Willhoite wrote. “The expressions of people as I drive by is funny, they yell, wave, get their stuff together and stand at the curb … they usually have a very puzzled look on their face.”
Lloyd Flem, a friend for 35 years and executive director of All Aboard Washington, said Willhoite and Hamre were also interested in transit policy — to promote rail, ferries and buses as alternatives to single-occupancy cars.
“He devoted his life to advocating for balanced public transportation in the United States,” Fowler said of Hamre.