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Montana's southern passenger train service may not be on time

The goal to see passenger rail in Montana by 2030 will be difficult to achieve
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Posted at 8:52 AM, Mar 13, 2024

MISSOULA — The prospect of traveling to Chicago or Minneapolis without needing to drive or visit the airport is attractive to most Montanans, which is why it’s reasonable the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority (BSPRA) has garnered support from 20 counties across the state.

BSPRA announced last week that Montanans will be riding a passenger train by 2030, six years sooner than the Federal Rail Administration’s estimate.

The timeline is dependent on how fast new Amtrak trains will be released, when infrastructure improvements can be made, and whether Montana can expect continued support from Congress.

The BSPRA was formed in 2019 to push for the restoration of the North Coast Hiawatha, which runs through southern Montana.

The route was recently included in the Federal Rail Association’s (FRA) Amtrak Daily Long-Distance Service Study.

The FRA study examined 15 possible long-distance passenger rail routes across the country.

In an email, an FRA representative wrote, “The proposed preferred routes are meant to be a vision of potential future long-distance service.”

The proposed routes will be presented before Congress later this year as recommendations for increased passenger rail service in the U.S.

The Montana route declared by FRA in the study runs through several communities including Billings, Helena, Missoula and Sandpoint, Idaho.

BSPRA is working to suggest a few additions to the FRA plan.

First, to add an additional route through Butte, which was advocated by residents of Butte-Silverbow County.

The route from Butte to Helena goes through Homestake Pass, a path of intense curves and inclines. It has been abandoned for about three decades, meaning many improvements are needed before the addition of a passenger rail.

They also suggested a new route from Phoenix to Butte through Salt Lake City, a path that held a passenger rail between the 1920s and 1970s but has since been out of service.

According to BSPRA, the route through Butte is a reasonable addition — allowing for a twice-daily service along the North Coast Hiawatha and improved operations for freight trains.

“It's going to require significant investment to get that backup and running,” Dave Strohmaier, chairman for BSPRA and a Missoula County Commissioner, says, “What I say to folks is, and especially this is something that resonates with Butte, Montana, is that we in Montana do not shrink from big bold initiatives, big bold goals. And unless you set that goal, that objective, you're never going to reach it.”

The proposed freight benefit across the Homestake Pass is questionable, according to retired BNSF employee, Mark Meyer. The curves and incline subject heavy freight cars to slips or derailments.

Meyer — who has 40 years of experience in Montana railroad operations — believes the proposed route is a way to appease upset Butte-Silverbow County residents.

“It just appears to me that this is an attempt to either appease people in Montana by saying, you know, ‘we're supporting a train this way’ or they haven't taken the time to do the research as to the operational barriers that are a real thing,” Meyer says.

At the same time as the long-distance study, Amtrak is working with BSPRA on an FRA Corridor Identification and Development study.

The North Coast Hiawatha Route is the only one chosen from the long-distance study to partake in Corridor ID.

“All the questions that are burning questions on people's minds, that is what this analysis will look like,” Strohmaier says.

The Corridor ID study is made up of three parts, the total of which will have a multi-million dollar budget.

The first step will scope out the possible route and cost $500,000.

The second step involves a multi-million dollar service development plan, which will lay out the preliminary image of what the project will look like.

Additional millions of dollars will go towards final design plans and preliminary engineering. The last step requires matched funds, so BSPRA will likely have to look toward grant or fundraising opportunities.

After the Corridor ID is finished– a process that will take upwards of two years — BSPRA will have a budget for recommended infrastructure improvements, station locations and a rough train schedule.

Construction will not begin until the study is done and continued federal funding is secured.

“Once we have those answers, we'll be in a much better position to answer the question of precisely when I can get on one of these trains and go to Seattle or Chicago or all parts in between,” Strohmaier says.

After Corridor ID, Congress could decide to pull support and invest the dollars in another project.

“There's a good possibility that if you spend X number of billion dollars to get this route ready, that Congress might just say, ‘No, we're not going to, we're not going to give you the money to run it’,” Meyer says.

Amtrak ran a study in 2009 that calculated an estimated cost of $1 billion for restoring the North Coast Hiawatha route.

The study lacked details, including a train schedule and specific costs for new stations.

Strohmaier says it is likely an overstatement in cost for today, as some of the required infrastructure improvements have already been made.

Meyer, however, says the opposite. In the 2009 study, the cost of every station, regardless of location or size, was $1 million.

A station with ADA compliance, restrooms, baggage check and adequate waiting rooms, will likely cost more.

In the fall of 2021, Amtrak spent $4 million to improve the station in Grand Forks, North Dakota.

Meyer estimates the total cost of a passenger rail through Montana to exceed $2 billion.

Overall, BSPRA expects Montanans to be traveling on the new passenger rail by 2030, which is six years sooner than what is expected by the Federal Rail Association.

For Strohmaier, the timeline is ambitious but still realistic.

“If we can put a man on the moon in a decade, surely we can get these trains rolling on planet Earth in a much more expedited time frame,” he says.

A large barrier to BSPRA’s timeline is the development of Amtrak's long-distance rail cars. Most of the cars currently in use are decades old with frequent delays and issues.

They would need to be replaced prior to the implementation on North Coast Hiawatha.

In 2018, Amtrak announced the replacement of 75 long-distance cars which were expected to be in service by the end of 2024.

As of now, less than 10 are being used. In 2022, they added 50 to the previous order and extended the deadline to 2029.

In 2023, Amtrak ordered an additional fleet of long-distance cars as a way to help the expansion of passenger rail. The expected release of this billion-dollar fleet is not until the early 2030’s.

Currently, there is a large shortage of rail car manufacturers in the U.S., delaying the development of any future fleets.

“One of the challenges in this study that needs to be overcome is figuring out how we need to shorten the timeframe between ordering trains and actually getting them,” Strohmaier says.

For Meyer, the priority for Amtrak should be improving existing passenger rail rather than expanding the service.

In September 2021, three people were killed and 49 injured after a passenger car derailed on the Empire Builder route along Montana's Hi-Line.

“In other words, we have to have a strong basic system before anybody should have a fantasy about building on something that A: might not be around and B: might just be a house of cards if the equipment is not in place,” Meyer says.

The economic benefit of Amtrak cars is debated, according to Meyer, but in the September 2023 Amtrak Performance Report, the Empire Builder was said to have an Adjusted Operating Earning (total revenue - total expenses) of $55 million.

In a 2021 study commissioned by BSPRA, the proposed North Coast Hiawatha route was calculated to have an economic benefit of$271 million, a number often referenced by the organizations.

For Strohmaier, this number is underselling the real revenue of the route.

“Where you really gain value from these long-distance routes are the intermediate connections, the intermediate stops and destinations,” he says.

Either way, the commissioned study, Strohmaier says, is under-detailed and vague. The ridership is generalized across counties and inaccurate in certain points.

For example, as Meyer points out, ridership out of Bozeman is calculated to be less impactful than ridership out of Detroit Lakes, MN, a town with a population of less than 10,000.

The railroad would be built with federal dollars, particularly investments made through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

However, BSPRA is a taxable jurisdiction in the state of Montana. In future years, the organization could ask participating counties to tax their residents in order to pay for BSPRA.

Strohmaier says they have no plans, as of now, to introduce tax levees.

In Amtrak’s FY2022 Company Profile, they said “No country in the world operates a passenger rail system without some form of public support for capital costs and/or operating expenses.”

Strohmaier says BSPRA encourages public engagement on the project, asking concerned parties to reach out to them directly or attend the board meetings. Facebook comments for BSPRA are turned off.

“We encourage folks to contact us directly, participate in our actual meetings,” Strohmaier says. “Social media is a poor proxy for a dialogue and community engagement and if anything, in this heightened political atmosphere that we live in, what I see more often than not is just anonymous comments that do no one any good except level personal attacks on one another.”

The next BSPRA board meeting is on Wednesday, March 13, 2024, at 11:30 a.m.