Bring back the Pioneer Route

   If this summer’s unprecedented drought, scorching temperatures and wildfire smoke aren’t reasons to get serious about climate change, nothing is.

 The extreme weather we’re seeing this summer, scientists say,  wouldn’t be possible without climate change. 

  What can we do about it? We can walk and cycle more and drive less, turn up the AC, switch from gas-powered engines to electric motors … For more, Google Goodside ebooks. 

  If we could, we could ride trains more and fly less. Passenger trains  produce significantly fewer emissions than airplanes do, but sadly we haven’t been able to ride Amtrak trains in southern Idaho for almost a quarter century. That’s not likely to change any time soon, but revived efforts in behalf of Amtrak’s Pioneer Route that once served this part of the country are encouraging.

   President Joe Biden has proposed $66 billion for Amtrak repairs and developing new routes. The U.S. Senate has asked Amtrak to look into restoring four abandoned Amtrak routes, including the Pioneer, and U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo has been working for years to restore it. Boise’s city council unanimously passed a resolution in June urging return of the route.

   The Pioneer, which ran between Seattle and Denver from 1977 to 1997, brought passenger service to Nampa, Boise, Mountain Home  and Pocatello. Like Crapo, late Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus, U.S. Sen. Frank Church and U.S. Sen. James McClure worked hard to bring the route to Idaho and keep it running for two decades. 

  It would be nice to see Gov. Brad Little and Sen. Jim Risch start making some noise about getting our train back.

  One who is making noise is Boise City Council President Elaine Clegg. Clegg is a member of the transportation infrastructure committee of the National League of Cities and has personally contacted Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg about resurrecting the Pioneer.

  Clegg, according to a recent story in The Idaho Statesman, rode the Pioneer as a child.

  “It was so much fun,” she was quoted as saying.

  No argument.

  One of the best assignments I ever had as a reporter began on the Pioneer. Amtrak was advertising two-week passes to anywhere it went. My editor bought me one and told me to see how far I could get, writing a story a day.

  I made it as far east as Putney, Vermont, as far south as Birmingham, Alabama. The most memorable stop was in Piggott, Arkansas, where the editor of the weekly newspaper was killing time on a slow day when I stopped to ask for some help. 

 “You’re looking for something to write about?” he asked.

  “Yes, and I don’t have a lot of time.”

  “Good. You can write about me. I’m a pretty good story.”

  With that he took me on a tour of the town. My desperation must have been obvious when, an hour later, he was proudly showing me Piggott’s water tower and I still didn’t have a story.

 “Let’s head out to the old Pfeiffer place,” he said. 

  The Pfeiffer place was a stately, two-story house on the outskirts of town. It was a beautiful home, but instead of showing it off he led me down a hill to a structure that could be described as a cross between a barn and a shack.   

  “See the burn marks on that wall there?” he said. 

 “Yes?”

  “I was out hunting one day when this building caught fire. A man was trying to get the shutters open to throw some papers out of the upstairs window. He shouted at me to come and help, so I did.”

  And that was how Laud Payne helped Ernest Hemingway save the manuscript to “A Farewell to Arms.” Hemingway was then married to Pauline Pfeiffer, whose family owned the house on the hill. 

  I had my story for that day.

  When I was a kid, my grandmother used to ride the train from Colorado to visit every few years. It was about the only time my father ever saw his mother. It was a Union Pacific train rather than an Amtrak train then, but for a kid the difference was immaterial. I enjoyed every minute of her arrivals, waiting to hear the train’s whistle as it approached, putting my ear to the rails to listen for the vibration, putting pennies on the track for the locomotive’s wheels to flatten.

  When our kids were little, we rode the Pioneer to Olympia, Wash., to spend Thanksgiving, Christmas and summer vacations with relatives there. To borrow Clegg’s words, it was “so much fun.”

  We played cards and board games on the tables in the diner car. The crystal and white linen of earlier days were gone, but the meals and the service in the diner cars were pretty good. The kids enjoyed looking out the big windows at the scenery, as did their parents. Scenery is one of the reasons for riding a train. You see towns and cities, rivers, lakes, fall colors, things you don’t see from  an airplane.

  If not for Amtrak, we’d have had to miss Christmas with the family  one year. Fog had closed the airports; a snowstorm had closed the freeway over the Blue Mountains. The train was literally the only way to get there.

  We played games, read books, “oohed” and “aahed” at picture-perfect snowscapes while the train negotiated the mountain pass –  silent, closed off from the bustling world, deep in fresh snow. It was one of our best trips ever.

  It’s been too long since southern Idahoans were able to enjoy those kinds of experiences. If you’d like to see the Pioneer return, consider contacting those who could help make it happen.

  Their email addresses are: Gov. Brad Little, gov.idaho.gov; Sen. Jim Risch, risch.senate.gov; Sen. Mike Crapo, crapo.sen.gov.

  The return of the Pioneer would help Idaho’s economy, introduce many Idahoans to a type of public transportation they’ve never known and be a small but welcome step toward fighting climate change. It would be great to see all of Idaho’s political leaders working together to make it happen. In less divisive times, that’s what political leaders did. 

Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at woodwardcolumn@gmail.com.

One thought on “Bring back the Pioneer Route

  1. I rode the train between Portland and Boise once a month, especially during the winter months, to attend my monthly Air National Guard unit training. One thing was for certain, one cannot be in a hurry or on a tight schedule because in those days the train definitely was not. However, it was a relaxing way to travel over the Blues and into the Treasure Valley.

    Like

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