All Aboard Northwest comes to La Grande to advocate for passenger rails

Aug. 11—LA GRANDE — All Aboard Northwest will be rolling into La Grande Saturday, Aug. 13, to host a 10 a.m. Train Trek meeting at the Cook Memorial Library.

This month, rail advocates from AANW are hosting a series of these Train Trek events across Oregon, Idaho and Utah to garner support and funding for a robust multi-modal transportation network across America's northwest region.

AANW is a nonprofit organization aiming to address the needs of rail passengers and particularly on a regional scale over state lines. Charles Hamilton, vice president and treasurer of AANW, said the team is particularly excited about connecting with community members in more rural areas.

"I think it's the smaller communities that really need transportation more than anything," Hamilton, noting the impact rail transportation could have on rural communities.

This series of outreach and engagement events highlight rail issues and opportunities in the region and promote multi-modal transportation options — notably a long-distance passenger rail network.

With the recent national emphasis on rail transport, the AANW's mission may be gaining momentum.

In November 2021, the House passed a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, allocated $66 billion in funding for Amtrak's repair backlog. This would allow for improvements to existing passenger rail networks and potentially kickstart new projects that would allow passenger rail service across the nation.

With federal funding poised to provide unprecedented long-distance transportation access in America, Hamilton noted that this is the time for communities to start advocating for passenger rail access in their towns and cities.

"This is your opportunity to make a big difference," he said.

The last passenger train that offered service to the northeastern Oregon region — the Salt Lake City-Boise-Portland-Seattle Pioneer — was discontinued in 1997 after 20 years of operation. Since then, the region has relied on vehicular transport for long-distance transportation via the region's highway network.

More than 100 community members attended a similar event in La Grande in 2019, hosted by regional rail advocates in collaboration with the Association of Oregon Rail and Transit Advocates.

AANW's work builds on that of All Aboard Washington, the Rail Passengers Association and other advocacy organizations across the nation. Hamilton and the AANW team started the nonprofit in January 2022. Although they helped with the first annual Train Trek events that All Aboard Washington hosted in 2021, this is the first year AANW is at the helm.

"We realized there was a need for a region-wide organization," said Hamilton.

AANW's next stop on the Train Trek route is Boise. The team is loosely following the original routes of tracks that carried the now-discontinued North Coast Hiawatha and Pioneer passenger trains. According to Hamilton, both of these trains are likely to be studied in the coming years by the Federal Railroad Administration — to analyze their viability for starting up again.

Shannon Golden is a reporter for The Observer. Contact her at 541-624-6015