Midnight Train to Moab

By Nathaniel Smith • The Times-Independent

The vision for bringing passenger rail service to Moab is gradually taking shape. On Monday, Dec. 10, the ad-hoc Moab Transit Authority Study Committee hosted Mike Christensen; the executive director of the Utah Rail Passengers Association, for a discussion about how Moab fits into plans to expand rail service throughout the state.

Christensen formed the nonprofit Utah RPA in August with the overarching goal “to bring better transportation options to Utah.” He is especially focused on expanding rail service beyond the Utah’s population center. “Right now, along the Wasatch Front, we’ve got some pretty good public transit going on, but there isn’t much beyond the Wasatch Front,” he said.

As the capstone project for his master’s degree in city and metropolitan planning, Christensen developed a proposal “to bring state-sponsored Amtrak service to Utah” using existing Union Pacific tracks.

The route envisioned by Christensen would connect the Wasatch Front north to Logan, southwest to Cedar City and southeast to Grand Junction. In the proposal, Moab is connected to the train route by a motor coach service that would run from Green River. Christensen said he would like rail service to extend all the way to Moab, but he sees a bus connection as an interim solution while the backbone of the route would take priority.

To bring Christensen’s plan to fruition, it will take funding from the Utah Legislature. In an effort to convince policymakers to subsidize passenger rail service, Christensen is working to “build a coalition of Utah communities.” Moab was Christensen’s first stop, because of the Transit Authority’s work and the community’s enthusiasm for bringing passenger trains to the town.

During the Transit Authority meeting that Christensen attended, members of the committee had to re-evaluate how their plans would fit in with those of the Utah RPA. Up to this point, the committee has worked to bring the Utah Department of Transportation on board with plans to connect Moab and Salt Lake City by rail. While Christensen acknowledged UDOT is an important stakeholder, he suggested that negotiating a deal between Union Pacific and Amtrak for use of the tracks would be the most essential.

Grand County Community and Economic Development Director Zacharia Levine reported a conversation he had with the Region 4 planner for UDOT. Levine said he confirmed that UDOT has committed $50,000 to study a rail connection between Salt Lake and Moab. The study will likely take about six months.

Support from UDOT would be helpful because Christensen thought a funding source might be taking State of Utah general fund money that currently goes to highway maintenance and instead put it toward rail. Christensen said the goal of expanding rail service is not to compete with air travel, but rather to compete with highways.

Utah has the California Zephyr running across it, but while it works for traveling long distances, it is not ideal for travel inside the state. When the Transit Authority members looked at that train’s schedule, they found its times to be far from convenient.

For example, to travel from Salt Lake to Green River, one would need to board the train at around three in the morning. With state-sponsored Amtrak service, Christensen said there could be three trains a day on the segment from Grand Junction to the Wasatch Front.

Notably, privately owned freight railroads, like Union Pacific, can deny access or charge exorbitant rates to other carriers, but are required by law to negotiate with Amtrak to allow passenger service. “That makes Amtrak very important as a partner in this,” Christensen said. He pointed out 18 other states use some form of state-sponsored Amtrak service to provide intercity passenger rail service.

The State of Utah would need to provide the funds and would own the trains, but negotiations for use of the tracks would go through Amtrak. Partnering with Amtrak would also allow Utah to use its marketing and reservation system.

Joe Kingsley, vice chair of the Transit Authority and the committee member who has spearheaded the rail project, asked Christensen whether it would be better to start with the Utah Transit Authority or Amtrak. The UTA currently manages the FrontRunner, a commuter train from Provo to Ogden.

Christensen thought it would be highly unlikely that the UTA would be interested in extending its service. Since UTA relies on sales taxes from communities in the district it serves, Grand County would need to join the transit district, a notion Christensen didn’t think would be possible.

Furthermore, Christensen noted that UTA is approximately $2 billion in debt, which would limit any expansion efforts.

Connecting Moab to the train route by bus might be the most realistic option, but it doesn’t quite have the same appeal as bringing a passenger train straight to the city. Christensen and the Transit Authority discussed a of options. Christensen floated the idea of using a separate train on a spur route from Green River to Moab.

Though he noted that the possibility of including Moab on the main route was more feasible. It would require the train to be able go in both directions and would add some time to the trip for commuters between Grand Junction and Salt Lake City. Still, Christensen said, “I think it’s the best solution for getting cars off 191.”

Regardless of the type of connection between Green River and Moab, Christensen said it would not be “as important as the location of the Moab station.” Canyonlands Field Airport Director Judd Hill mentioned the possibility of building a platform where the train tracks run close to the airport.

Kingsley suggested building a train station near the Moab Giants Dinosaur Museum. However, Christensen and the Transit Authority agreed the site of the uranium tailings pile would be the best place. Of course, it would likely be decades before anything could be constructed there.

The committee members expressed interest in building a small interim station, whereas Christensen thought relying on bus service until the tailings pile site is available would be best.

Kingsley brought up the idea of attaching flat cars to the passenger train, so people could bring their personal vehicles or recreational “toys” with them to Moab. Christensen was not sold on the idea. He noted the Auto Train that runs between Lorton, Virginia, and Sanford, Florida has flat cars, though they aren’t used for recreational or off-road vehicles. Christensen described the added logistical challenges of such a setup. It takes hours to load or unload the vehicles and the train does not make any intermediate stops between its origin and destination.

While Christensen did say Amtrak is “in the perfect position to run on existing freight tracks,” he did mention several challenges to expanding rail service in Utah. “One of the biggest obstacles is that a lot of our policymakers, especially in the Utah Legislature, tend to see Utah as still being very rural,” Christensen said. “They’re really hesitant to look at solutions that don’t fit with their more rural view of Utah.” Another major hurdle cited by Christensen is bringing together all the primary stakeholders including the state, Amtrak, Union Pacific and all the communities along the route.

Christensen plans to spend 2019 building a coalition to convince lawmakers to put $2 to $3 million into a comprehensive study.

Levine said the “obvious first step” is to start talking with representatives and present them with a “compelling vision or story.”

Those interested in finding more information can visit linkutah.org to view the route and read Christensen’s proposal. The Transit Authority will continue to work on developing a vision for rail service in Moab.