Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) The Federal Railroad Administration has finished its first round of stakeholder meetings that will help inform the outcome of a pending study on long distance passenger rail service and the role it could play in nation's transportation system.

The study was mandated by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and will evaluate the restoration of daily passenger service along discontinued routes, such as the North Coast Hiawatha, which once crossed Montana's southern tier.

The study will also look at existing routes that operate with less than daily service, the FRA said.

“The Amtrak Daily Long-Distance Service Study is one part of our broader effort to make passenger rail a more reliable travel option, as well as an alternative to congested roads,” said FRA administrator Amit Bose.

During the recent meetings, Amtrak and local officials, along with state transportation departments and metropolitan planning organizations, reviewed existing and discontinued long-distance passenger routes.

Dave Strohmaier, chair of the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority, said participants at the Denver meeting also discussed the potential economic benefits of new rail connections and how Amtrak and communities can work together to improve intercity passenger rail along long-distance routes.

“I felt like all the stakeholders represented were aligned in that the North Coast Hiawatha is a high priority route to restore,” Strohmaier said. “Also, from a regional perspective, the Pioneer route from either Denver or Salt Lake City up through Boise to Portland is also an important piece of regional passenger rail.”

In the coming months, the FRA said it will hold additional meetings as it closes in on its plans to enhance long-distance passenger rail. Strohmaier said those meetings, planned for July, will be key for the North Coast Hiawatha.

“We'll be there at the table,” Strohmaier said. “At that meeting, they'll be rolling out their short list of recommended routes to be restored. It's a critical threshold for us.”

The Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority, which includes members from most counties along the old Hiawatha route, have spent the past two years growing their membership and meeting with federal transportation officials, along with Amtrak, in hopes of restoring passenger service.

Once finished, the FRA study will set a vision for long-distance passenger rail by identifying routes that could be restored and the cost of any capital improvements that may be necessary.

“FRA envisions a future where Americans can easily access the passenger services they need,” said Bose. “Conducting this study alongside partners who know the transportation needs of their states and localities brings us one step closer to this vision.”

The Federal Railroad Administration's six main regions.
The Federal Railroad Administration's six main regions.

The FRA has broken the nation down into six main groups and the North Coast Hiawatha and Pioneer routes are both located in the Northwest Region.

Notes from the recent stakeholder meeting said the main themes in the Northwest included “the number of rural areas that routes would connect,” along with ridership, economic benefits and “the number of areas with higher-than-average disadvantaged populations that a route would serve.”

Along with the Montana rail authority, Northwest region members included the Montana Department of Transportation, the Missoula Metropolitan Planning Organization, the National Park Service and the Association of Idaho Cities, among many others.

Compared to other parts of the county, the Northwest region remains underserved, even while Amtrak ridership grows nationally. Between March 2020 and March 2022, long-distance routes served more 4.8 million passengers, Amtrak said.

In the seven-months that followed, long-distance routes served more 2.5 million passengers – more than half the ridership of the previous two years combined.

“Amtrak ridership numbers are rising across the board, and after a pandemic dip, it's further evidence that Americans are returning to travel by rail,” the FRA said.