Posted on

Amtrak’s Southern Route Gains Additional Federal Support

Amtrak’s Southern Route Gains Additional Federal Support Amtrak’s Southern Route Gains Additional Federal Support

A Chicago-to-Seattle passenger rail route that passes through some of Montana’s most populous counties has been included in a list of 15 long-distance routes tapped for restoration by the federal government. The development marks the second time federal regulators have spotlighted the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority’s efforts to bring additional passenger train service to Montana.

During a meeting on Feb. 8, the Federal Railroad Administration also provided a bit more detail on where the North Coast Hiawatha service might stop if Amtrak ultimately restores the route, landing on service through Helena rather than Butte.

Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority, which was formed in 2020 under an obscure, century-old piece of Montana law to advocate for expanded passenger rail service through southern Montana, said the development is a “very strong signal” that federal authorities are invested in a restoration of the North Coast Hiawatha route.

“There’s a lot of momentum building behind restoring this route,” BSPRA vice chair and Dawson County Economic Development Council member Jason Stuart told Montana Free Press. “We’re really excited about where we’re at.”

Stuart said the North Coast Hiawatha Route was one of the strongest candidates for restored service because it stands to benefit sparsely populated communities with few options to connect with hospitals, colleges, urban centers and veteran services beyond “getting in a car and driving hundreds of miles.”

“In terms of connecting rural, disadvantaged communities and tribal communities, it shows the best performance metrics of any of the routes in achieving those goals,” Stuart said. “This is going to be such an enormous boost for rural communities to have this service restored.”

Stuart, who also serves on the Glendive City Council, noted that the North Coast Hiawatha route was the only one identified in the long-distance study that was also chosen for the FRA’s Corridor Identification and Development Program, which came with $500,000 of initial funding that will enable BSPRA to start getting a handle on the logistical, financial and ridership details required to restore the route, which was discontinued in 1979. Stuart said the BSPRA’s inclusion in that program puts BSPRA in the funding pipeline for millions of dollars of funding as the project advances.

Put those two developments together, he said, and “it means a lot.”

Stuart said he anticipates that the FRA will present its report on the long-distance study to Congress by the end of the year.

“That’s very important because this is the Federal Railroad Administration — the agency that handles both passenger and freight rail traffic — telling Congress, ‘We think you should restore this route,’” he said.

Both the Amtrak Daily Long-Distance Service Study and the Corridor ID program are funded by the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which included more than $8 billion for passenger rail projects.

Once completed, the report will demonstrate the economic and social benefits of new and restored Amtrak service and provide guidance on implementation, according to FRA spokesperson William Wong.

There’s been some uncertainty as to the precise location the North Coast Hiawatha route might take as it travels between Glendive and Missoula, and that piece of the puzzle is coming into focus. Per the FRA’s presentation, which includes a further-analysis-is-needed disclaimer, the preferred route will pass through Helena rather than Butte. The line east of Butte, over Homestake Pass, has been out of service for decades, meaning it would be a heavier lift to get that section of railroad in shape for regular use.

Stuart said BSPRA intends to continue to advocate for rail service to Butte as part of a larger goal to “bring passenger rail service to as many Montana communities as possible.”

“At the end of the day, we won’t consider our work completed until both Helena and Butte have access to rail service, and we would even include Great Falls and Shelby on that list, as well,” Stuart said.

The North Coast Hiawatha route isn’t the only proposal expanding Montanans’ access to passenger rail that was incorporated in the FRA’s presentation: a route between Billings and El Paso, Texas, also made the cut.

Stuart said he anticipates that the Long-Distance Service Study Working Group will meet again within the next four months. The FRA is taking comments on its list of preferred routes through March 8 at contactus@ fralongdistancerailstudy. org.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *