Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) If and when the North Coast Hiawatha spanning Montana's southern tier makes the short list of routes Amtrak will restore – and if it makes the final cut after that – a host of other services could spring up around it, including enhanced bus service.

The Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority and its county members across the state joined Amtrak in a call this week regarding the agency's “Throughway” service, or the various tools the railroad uses to bring remote riders to a train stop.

“Across the network of long-distance lines in this country, including what we hope to see in a restored North Coast Hiawatha route, not every community, county or place along the route will have a station stop,” said Dave Strohmaier, the authority's chair and a Missoula County commissioner. “This service Amtrak provides elsewhere around the county is one thing to consider.”

Noah Bradshaw, the lead service planner with Amtrak, said Throughway service gives Amtrak the ability to engage with partners that operate other transportation services, such as bus lines. Doing so provides connecting service to rural areas and enables those riders to access passenger rail.

Such options are in place in other parts of the county and in some cases, it includes a ferry while in others it relies upon a bus. It effectively extends the reach of the railroad and boosts ridership, Bradshaw said.

“It extends Amtrak's travel where trains don't go and provides full connectivity to those not served by other modes of transportation,” he said. “We partner with commuter trains, other railways, shuttles, vans, taxi services and ferries.”

Bradshaw said Throughway services leverages Amtrak's assets, increases its relevance and plays to social equity by ensuring everyone can access passenger rail.

In some cases, Bradshaw said Amtrak can help subsidize the connecting service, align it with the railroad's schedule and set ticket pricing. Under such agreements, Amtrak must sell that service with a train ticket.

The agency can also help execute ticket agreements.

“We're actually allotted a number of seats to sell on that service and the carrier recognizes our tickets in doing so,” Bradshaw said. “In some cases, Amtrak will pay a minimum revenue guarantee to block out those services.”

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Amtrak's largest state partnership lies in California, where the network is subsidized by the state but managed by Amtrak. In the states of Washington, Wisconsin and Virginia, Amtrak operates a connecting route on behalf of the states, Bradshaw said.

He said studies have shown that Throughway service boosts ridership on Amtrak's trains.

“The more riders you put on, the less subsidies a state will have to pay,” he said.

Planning ahead in hopes of making the cut

The talk with Amtrak this week comes as the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority anticipates the release of a study on restoring long-distance passenger routes.

The study was mandated by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and it directed the Federal Railroad Administration to evaluate the restoration of daily passenger service along discontinued routes, such as the North Coast Hiawatha and the Pioneer route that could connect Salt Lake City, Boise and Portland.

Amtrak discontinued the Hiawatha route in the late 1970s. But times have changed and the railroad has found a restored niche in the nation's transportation network. Advocates of the service believe the route would provide a viable and valuable east-west connection through Montana's most populated region.

The FRA's short-list of routes that could be restored is expected out in July, and the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority is watching closely. In hopes of making the list, the authority is checking its boxes along the way, including ways to ensure the route succeeds by exploring Throughway service.

Bradshaw said such agreements have been in place for more than a century, building synergy between railroads and bus lines. Some of the oldest Throughway services are operated by Santa Fe, Union Pacific, Rock Island and Redding, Bradshaw said.

“Hopefully in the future we can bridge all those gaps with the North Coast Hiawatha,” he said. “Then you're talking about a different service pattern to connect to. But with existing service being only the Empire Builder going east and west, the only real option to bring people to the rail network is a north-south (Throughway) service.”