Amtrak will provide guidance and support to the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority as it works to restore service across the southern tier of Montana, an agency representative said last week.
Rob Eaton, director of government affairs for Amtrak out of Washington state, said the authority’s efforts will take time to net results, though it’s mission isn’t impossible.
“As you go down this journey, it will be a long journey,” he said. “It will be a worthwhile journey, but it’s going to take some time.”
Eaton said Congress gave passenger rail a boost by passing the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act in 2008. The legislation guaranteed that all states would be treated equally in providing passenger service along corridors 750 miles in length or less.
State corridors have seen increased ridership, Eaton said. The southern route through Montana would hit the state’s largest population centers.
“Corridor routes are a strong part of our future,” he said. “What you have done is definitely historic. You’ve created a rail authority without direct action from the Legislature or governor’s office.”
Eaton said the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority must decide what type of service it’s seeking and where the route would run. That includes connections to other corridors as part of a passenger rail network.
Amtrak’s defunct North Coast Hiawatha ran from eastern Montana through Billings, Bozeman and Missoula up until 1979, terminating in Sand Point, Idaho, where it connected with the Empire Builder.
The Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority is looking to restore the route, though other connections could be made along the way, including a route between Salt Lake City and Butte, and another between Denver and Billings.
Eaton said the authority must work to establish that vision and build partnerships with state officials and host railroads. In Montana, that’s Montana Rail Link and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Co.
“We’ll be your conduit to your host railroad,” Eaton said. “We’ve had some initial conversations with MRL. Your relationship with MRL will have to be strong. What I hope to do is work with you as you develop your vision.”
Eaton said Amtrak can help with other aspects as well, including cost modeling, analyzing infrastructure needs, and thoughts on ownership of the rolling stock. In some states, such as Washington, the state owns the locomotives.
However it shakes out, Eaton said, Amtrak would ask to be the operator of choice.
“Going down the line, as we have conversations with BNSF and MRL, there will be some needs that need to be met that will accommodate additional rail traffic in whatever proposed rout you have,” he said.
Eaton added that Amtrak can work with host railroads to identify what capital improvements will be needed to support passenger rail and any federal grants available to achieve it.
“I envision a working relation with the host railroads, where the state – this authority – works with MRL and Amtrak to identify capital improvements that will be needed and applying for federal funds to make those improvements to allow passenger rail,” he said.