(KPAX) Burlington Northern Santa Fe said it's looking forward to working with passenger rail advocates who hope to bring service back to Montana's "Southern Route" sometime in the next few years.

That was the message Wednesday, as representatives of BNSF and Montana Rail Link met for the first time in a formal setting with the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority. The presentation came just a few weeks after MRL announced it's letting its lease expire and turning over all freight operations to BNSF.

U.S. law requires freight haulers to coordinate passenger rail with Amtrak and local organizations.

Matt Jones, the executive director of Public Affairs for BNSF, reassured the group the company has an entire division which works to support passenger rail.

"We've had long-standing, very positive relationships with both Amtrak and commuter rail operations on our network," Jones told the BSPRA meeting. "It's something that isn't foreign to BNSF. We look forward to following along with what the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority is doing. We'll have a seat at the table during that process."

Jones expects it will be "several more months" before MRL turns over operations to BNSF. He said the railroads must work out agreements with the various unions and will apply to the Surface Transportation Board for federal approval of the transfer.

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