It was only a few decades ago that Northern Pacific Railroad ran daily trains from Spokane through Pullman and down to Lewiston. And train cars loaded with students and steamer trunks came over the Cascades delivering their lively loads to packed stations filled with eager classmates awaiting their friends.

Bob Scarfo, an associate professor with Washington State University’s Interdisciplinary Design Institute, and his landscape architecture students have evoked some of that romance with a project urging the reintroduction of passenger trains to the Palouse. Only now, along with the romance of the rail, they’re citing contemporary reasons like oil scarcity, climate change, an aging population, and public health in general.

During the holidays and breaks, a special train would head north to Spokane and then turn west across the state to climb Stevens Pass and descend into Everett. From there it would drop south to Seattle and Tacoma. Courtesy Bob Smawley '52
During the holidays and breaks, a special train would head north to Spokane and then turn west across the state to climb Stevens Pass and descend into Everett. From there it would drop south to Seattle and Tacoma. Courtesy Bob Smawley ’52

One way to meet the resulting needs is with trains, Scarfo recently told the Pullman City Council. The project, titled Powering the Palouse, would use the existing tracks running from Spokane to Lewiston. They would need to be upgraded to get the speeds necessary, but at least they’re already in place, he says. The route would start in Spokane and run through Oakesdale and Rosalia. Scarfo’s students believe that with the return of passenger trains, these sleepy farm towns could come back to life.

They drew up plans for new stations that would serve as centers of the communities, with parks nearby and farmers’ markets in the parking lots and plazas.

A team of students who focused on Pullman thought a station could be built just below WSU’s old steam plant, where campus meets up with public paths and bicycle routes. It’s where the train delivering coal to the University used to stop. The location is ideal, Scarfo told the council, because it’s close to downtown and “would be accessible to a number of groups of people in the community.” Let your imagination go—besides hauling passengers and freight, the railcars could provide wireless Internet or hold classrooms. The stations could rent bicycles and smart cars. “The train is more than just a taxi. It’s a vehicle for change,” he said.

In Spokane, the train would meet up with the city’s future light rail-style transportation system. Students could take it up to the WSU Spokane campus, or just use it on the weekends to visit the city. Commuters might live in one town and ride the train to work in another. Places like Rosalia, where the townspeople were very interested to hear the students’ ideas, could be revitalized, said Scarfo.

The Pullman council was intrigued by the idea. “Students would love to get on the train and go to Spokane,” said Councilwoman Ann Heath. “They’d get more business. We’d probably get more business as well.”

Bob Smawley’s memories of the passenger rail go back further than most—to 1938, when as a 10-year-old he would board the evening train in Pullman to sell newspapers to the passengers. “It was the 5:45 Northern Pacific,” he says. “And sometimes the selling was pretty good and the train would start before I’d finished.” A few times the conductor would have to stop the train a half-mile down the track to let Smawley off. “He would say, ‘I never want to see you on my train again,’” says Smawley ’52. “But then the next time, he’d help me on.”

The train was such a part of the community. It brought the town to life each fall as it delivered students. Then during the holidays and breaks, a special train would head north to Spokane and then turn west across the state to climb Stevens Pass and descend into Everett. From there it would drop south to Seattle and Tacoma. When the sports teams traveled, they took the train, and the marching band and hundreds of students would rally at the depot to see them off.

After Northern Pacific closed its route, the Palouse was served for a time by a small commuter train that ran between Lewiston and Spokane until Feb. 28, 1966. Carol Smawley ’52 would sometimes take her children on the train up to Spokane for the day. “It was a pretty ride,” she says. “It meandered through the Palouse.” It took two hours to get there, but was a fun trip to make.

Reinstating a route like that would be a fairly simple effort, Scarfo told the Pullman City Council. The trains, the engines and the track are already in place, and the short lines have just started an $80 million project to improve the tracks for freight. “Without even knowing it, we’re taking a step in the right direction,” he said.

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