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What’s next in push to restore southern Montana’s passenger rail service

Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority’s Dave Strohmaier speaks to Montana Free Press about reviving the North Coast Hiawatha route

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This story is excerpted from the MT Lowdown, a weekly newsletter digest containing original reporting and analysis published every Friday.

In early December 2023, the Federal Railroad Administration announced that it awarded a $500,000 grant to the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority to explore the feasibility of restoring passenger rail service along the North Coast Hiawatha route, which passed through many of Montana’s largest cities along its Chicago-to-Seattle route before the service was scrapped four decades ago. The planning grant will allow the authority, which formed in 2020 under an obscure, century-old piece of Montana law, to catalog what needs to happen to get passenger train service running once more through Billings, Bozeman, Missoula and smaller communities in between.

MTFP caught up with the Missoula County Commissioner and BSPRA board president Dave Strohmaier to better understand the state’s prospects for expanded long-distance train travel. His comments have been edited for length and clarity.

MTFP: What does this planning grant mean for the North Coast Hiawatha route and BSPRA more generally?

Strohmaier: Two big things that were nested under the bipartisan infrastructure act are playing out now. The $500,000 grant we were awarded last week puts us in the planning pipeline for project implementation. It’s huge for us.

We also helped develop language in the 2021 infrastructure act directing the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Railroad Administration to study former Amtrak routes that could be brought back into service as well as brand new routes of 750 miles or more. The final report for the Amtrak daily long-distance service study is expected next spring or summer, and we expect to be included in it.

Between the two developments, I think it’s now almost certain that the Federal Railroad Administration will recommend that Congress restore the North Coast Hiawatha route.

MTFP: What kind of railroad infrastructure improvements will be needed to get the North Coast Hiawatha operational again?

Strohmaier: Fortunately, this is all existing infrastructure — it’s not as if we’re rolling back the clock to 1883 and building a brand new railroad. The grant serves as a foundational, preliminary step that will help us develop a service development plan, which will outline the investments needed to restore stations, install additional signals and build sections of double-track.

Since North Coast Hiawatha service was discontinued in 1979, some stations have been repurposed for other uses, for example, while others have sat empty. There are also places where double tracking might have to be built to avoid congestion with freight traffic. The service development plan will detail all of that.

MTFP: Rail authority skeptics express concern that restoring the North Coast Hiawatha will come at the expense of rural Hi-Line communities such as Havre, Wolf Point and Cut Bank that are served by Amtrak’s Empire Builder. How do you respond to those concerns?

Strohmaier: We need a healthy and vibrant Empire Builder in order to have a healthy and vibrant North Coast Hiawatha route, and that’s one reason we were a co-applicant with Amtrak on a successful $14.9 million grant to do railroad infrastructure work up near Malta. Establishing a section of double track there will help alleviate congestion between freight and passenger rail traffic.

This does not need to be a zero-sum game where if you add service somewhere it must be lost somewhere else. I get where some of the skeptics are coming from after living so long in a place of scarcity, but we don’t have just one airport or one interstate in Montana and I think there’s room for more than one passenger rail route.

We commissioned a high-level socioeconomic analysis a few years ago that estimated that restoring the North Coast Hiawatha would draw up to 426,000 riders per year, contributing $271 million in economic benefit to communities along the route. It’s also beneficial to have some redundancy in the passenger rail system. Wouldn’t it be nice, for example, if out-of-state riders had the option of taking Empire Builder into the state and returning home on the North Coast of the Hiawatha?

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