Passenger rail to Moab hasn’t left the station

Want to take a train between Moab and Salt Lake City? The idea remains in limbo.

(Sophia Fisher | The Times-Independent) An Amtrak train cruises through Thompson Springs in April 2022. The town lost its train station several decades ago; now, the nearest one to both Thompson and Moab is in Green River.

Could you someday take a midnight train going not just anywhere, but to Moab?

Mike Christensen of the Utah Rail Passengers Association hopes so.

“This is something that is not only just technically feasible to do, but it’s also very much needed,” said Christensen.

While Christensen has spent years advocating for the network, however, implementation would be years away. The Utah Department of Transportation is interested in the concept, a spokesperson said, but there are no immediate plans to pursue passenger rail to Moab.

Eventually, Christensen hopes Utah will implement a rail network that connects the whole state, including lines from Moab to the state capital and Grand Junction, Colorado. He said the connections would help Moab’s residents better access resources while facilitating sustainable tourism.

“I’ve stood on Main Street in Moab and seen how many cars are just going down [the street] and realized that there are other ways that people can experience recreation and national parks that don’t involve having to drive so far,” Christensen said.

Christensen’s statewide concept, called Link Utah, would extend passenger rail from Logan in the north all the way to Saint George in the south. An east-west branch would split from the main artery south of Provo, following Highway 6 and then Interstate 70 to Grand Junction. A small branch would also break off that line to dead-end at Moab.

Currently, the national passenger railroad Amtrak stops in Green River, about 50 miles from Moab.

The Utah Department of Transportation also contracts with a private company to provide daily bus service between Moab and Salt Lake City, but Christensen noted those tickets cost about $70. He hopes passenger rail could prove cheaper while doing more to decrease congestion.

Right now, the Utah Department of Transportation has only conceptually studied the Moab-Salt Lake City connection, according to spokesperson Kevin Kitchen.

“It was a very, very high-level study,” said Kitchen of the 2019-20 examination. “It would definitely take more study to get down to details.”

He said there isn’t more funding at this point to move forward, but said that’s not due to lack of interest from the department.

Christensen contended, however, that the study artificially deflated expected demand for the system by assuming there would be no shuttle bus between Moab and the modeled drop-off point by the intersection of highways 191 and 313.

“It was basically an excuse for UDOT to kill the whole idea,” he said.

But Kitchen said the department is still very open to extending passenger rail across Utah.

“We’re on the same page as far as that vision is concerned,” he said.

A gravy train?

For Christensen, extending train travel to Moab would help residents get out and about while facilitating visitation.

“It’s something that really goes both ways,” he said.

First, rail travel could not only help rural residents better access resources such as shopping and medical care; it could also change lives for Moab’s most vulnerable.

“A lot of times when families have to be removed from homes and put in foster care, they would end up in homes along the Wasatch Front,” Christensen said. “And when they tried to do things like reunification visits it often was a struggle for people … they didn’t have the money for it or because of substance abuse they had lost their license.”

Nathan Strain, a Wasatch Front resident who frequently visits southeastern Utah, said adding a rail connection could also offset existing tourist traffic and perhaps bolster local business.

“At least a single-digit percentage of people would take the train down and then use shuttles and tour companies,” he said.

Strain said there are far and away enough tourists who travel regularly to Moab to justify train service that otherwise might not fit a town of 10,000.

“I think Moab is perfect for that,” he said.

Getting back on track

Kitchen noted that since the study, Moab has taken strides that might make a passenger rail proposal more competitive. Creating an in-town shuttle system, Moab Area Transit, was one of those steps, he said.

“That’s already solving the first-mile, last-mile piece,” he said, referring to the idea that public transit is used more when it reaches people’s specific origins and destinations.

Christensen encouraged anyone interested in bringing train transit to Moab to contact him and local government officials. He said local governments can submit their own rail proposals to federal funding opportunities — they don’t need to go through the state. One such opportunity is the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Corridor Identification and Development Program.

“There’s really nothing stopping Moab and Grand County from deciding that if they really want a train there, they can go ahead and put in their own application,” he said.

He noted, though, that regional applications — such as one including Carbon and Emery counties — could be more successful.

Those funds would support further planning, not direct implementation. Indeed, realizing Christensen’s vision would require years of planning and problem-solving.

Still, Christensen noted, it’s “definitely something that we need to be looking into.”

“I feel that with all of the … tourism that is going to Moab, that it would be feasible,” he said. “…I feel like this is an opportunity that needs to be looked at deeper.”

This article originally appeared in The Times-Independent.