Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) A federal study covering the benefits and costs of restoring long-distance passenger rail service will begin to take shape next year, and the Federal Railroad Administration is encouraging Montana rail advocates to stay engaged.

The FRA this week said it has divided the country into various rail regions and plans to begin regional meetings in January. A shortlist of routes proposed for passenger rail restoration could emerge by spring, followed in the fall with a list of route priorities.

The Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority is pushing to ensure the old North Coast Hiawatha is included in November, when the Federal Railroad Administration submits its final Amtrak Daily Long Distance Service Study to Congress.

Representatives of Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines joined this week's meeting between the Montana rail authority and the FRA.

“The FRA believes that the long distance service study can serve as a common long-term vision for long-distance passenger rail service,” Lyle Leitelt, a community planner at the FRA, told the Montana rail authority this week. “It's to provide a strategy for Amtrak and other key stakeholders to implement and coordinate and develop long-distance routes.”

Rout of the old North Coast Hiawatha.
Rout of the old North Coast Hiawatha.

Recognizing the shortcomings of passenger rail in the continental U.S. and the potential economic benefits of restoration, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 required the FRA to conduct a study evaluating the restoration of daily inner-city passenger rail service along any Amtrak long-distance route that's been discontinued, and any Amtrak route that occurs on a non-daily basis.

The language also required the FRA to include an evaluation of potential new Amtrak long-distance routes, with specific attention paid to routes there were in service as of April 1971 but not continued by Amtrak. That includes the North Coast Hiawatha.

“We have to consider several items in our evaluation,” said Leitelt. “At the end of the study, FRA has to submit a report to Congress.”

The equation will consider a wide range of factors including preferred options, prioritized inventory, estimated cost of benefits, and federal and non-federal funding. Routes that link large and small cities will be explored, along with the economic well-being of rural areas, and whether a route adds to the national network of long-distance passenger service.

Leitelt said the study must also reflect public support for restored service – an area the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority can help achieve for the Pacific Northwest and Midwest regions. The old Hiawatha route links both regions, which adds to the potential challenge of conducting pointed public outreach.

“It appears to us to pose a bit of a challenge on how to be part of a consultation process when our proposed route is cut between two of the regions here,” said board member Dan Bucks. “There are choices that could be made on either end of the route for route variations, particularly in the Midwest where there's a lot of ideas that have been developed that could be incorporated into this route and, in turn, effect the entire route.”


Leitelt admitted that the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority was “a bit ahead of everyone else,” and he encouraged the organization to continue its work to restore service across Montana's southern tier. At the same time, he said other regions and potential corridors “have not been touched our looked at in 50 years,” and the process must lift “all boats” equally before any determination is made.

Still, Leitelt said there are areas where the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority could help the process along.

“We need to identify potential capital projects to move these processes forward,” he said. “You could provide us with information about existing stations and if they're still there and the condition of those facilities. That would help us do our capital investment inventory. That's the kind of information that could be helpful for us in our initial data collection.”

As it stands, the route of the old North Coast Haiwatha is a prime candidate for restoration and it meets the requirements of the study, given its connection of urban and rural, its economic benefits to rural communities, and that it once served within a wider network of passenger rail service.

It also has a willing rail operator in Burlington Northern Santa Fe, which has pledged both cooperation and enthusiasm for restored passenger service in southern Montana.

Amtrak operated the Hiawatha from 1971 to 1979. The route covered more than 2,200 miles in 48 hours with an average speed of 47 miles per hour, according to the FRA. It operated three times a week and include 37 stations.

Prior to Amtrak service, the route was known as the North Coast Limited and was operated by Northern Pacific as far back as 1900, Leitelt added.

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But in 1979, the U.S. Department of Transportation determined that cities poised along the North Coast Hiawatha's southerly route between Seattle and Chicago were “closely paralleled by an interstate highway and inner-city bus routes, and that the majority of cities served on this route enjoyed superior transportation options as opposed to the Empire Builder's more northerly route.”

“This elimination left the more populated areas of southern Montana without rail service,” Leitelt said, adding that elements of the Amtrak Daily Long Distance Service Study are beginning to come together.

“Our current focus areas are currently going across the board,” he said. “We've been focusing on agency, stakeholder and pubic engagement. We're also completing our assessment of previous long-distance services, and we're working on identifying the current travel market.”