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Montana, regional passenger rail advocates watching outcome of Gulf Coast freight dispute

The downtown rail yard in Missoula. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file)

Members of the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority and other advocates of long-distance passenger service will be watching closely over the coming weeks as the Surface Transportation Board weighs the arguments of Amtrak and two freight companies regarding their dispute over sharing a Gulf Coast route.

What comes out of those hearings could have far-reaching implications for passenger rail service across the nation, along with a decades-old agreement with host railroads over who has a right to the tracks.

“It’s going to be precedent setting and will hopefully provide some clarity as to the right of Amtrak on freight rail lines. We’ll see where it goes,” said Dave Strohmaier, chairman of the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority and a Missoula County commissioner.

The Big Sky rail authority, now 18 months old, is moving ever closer to restoring the old North Coast Hiawatha route across Montana’s southern tier. The route, which ran until 1979, would use rail operated by Burlington-Northern Sante Fe.

While Strohmaier said the Big Sky rail authority and BNSF have a good working relationship, that’s not the case currently with freight carriers CSX and Norfolk Southern, and Amtrak’s plan to restore a Gulf Coast route between New Orleans and Mobile.

“Amtrak requested to run its train on this route that had been discontinued after Hurricane Katrina,” Strohmaier said. “The Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority, along with our partners in the Pacific Northwest, will be submitting comments to the Surface Transportation Board on this.”

When Amtrak was created in the 1970s, it resulted in what’s still referred to as the Grand Bargain. It relieved the nation’s freight carriers from their common obligation to run and operate passenger trains. In exchange, Amtrak was given the legal right to access the host railroad’s lines.

But now, as Amtrak looks to restore Gulf service, its right to access that railroad is in dispute, as is how to determine what capacity projects will be needed to support passenger trails on the route without slowing freight service.

“Amtrak and host railroads typically work out agreements on new or expanded service,” Bill Stephens wrote on Trains.com. “They collaborate on a traffic study that helps determine what capacity improvements may be required. Amtrak picks up the tab, track improvements are made, and then service begins. Simple, right?”

However, Stephens reported that didn’t happen on the Gulf Coast, prompting Amtrak to pull out of a rail control study and instead announce its plans to launch service. The freight carriers said no, suggesting that more than $400 million in improvements would be required “so passenger trains would not interfere with freight.”

“That’s part of what’s at dispute here,” Strohmaier said. “The freight rail operators, mainly CSX, is alleging that in order to do that – to bring passenger rail back onto their system – it’s going to cost an exorbitant figure, way above and beyond what either Amtrak or the Federal Rail Administration has determined as being required to bring passenger service back.”

While the dispute is unfolding thousands of miles away with distant host railroads, Strohmaier said the findings of the Surface Transportation Board could have implications for the Big Sky Rail Authority and plans to restore a number of long-distance routes.

That includes the North Coast Hiawatha across southern Montana and the Pioneer route, which once connected Salt Lake City, Boise, Portland and Seattle.

Strohmaier added however that the Big Sky authority and BNSF have a good relationship.

“They have a tremendous amount of experience working with Amtrak across the nation and have pledged their willingness to work with us as the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority,” Strohmaier said. “It’s not like we’re in the same position as our friends and partners in the Southeast. But this ruling by the Surface Transportation Board will help us all clarify what the rights and responsibilities are for host railroads.”