Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) While restoration of the North Coast Hiawatha across Montana's southern tier will be included in a list of preferred passenger rail routes to Congress later this year, it still faces a series of additional steps as the process advances.

Transportation officials and passenger rail advocates gathered in Missoula this week for the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority's annual conference. Members of the Federal Railroad Administration also used the event to continue its Amtrak Daily Long-Distance Passenger Service Study with the Northwest Working Group.

“Rail travel is just a different kind of travel,” said Elaine Clegg, a Western nominee to the Amtrak board of directors. “The opportunity to reestablish that, and to reestablish at the same time a connectivity in the West that hasn't existed for almost 50 years, is a lifetime opportunity.”

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law directed the Federal Railroad Administration to complete the Amtrak Daily Long-Distance Passenger Service Study. Among other things, the study was to include consideration of discontinued long-distance routes, such as the North Coast Hiawatha.

Among other things, the directive also called upon the FRA to include some but not all potential costs, such as capital improvements, rolling stock and depot needs. It did not go so far as to include rail crossings, track capacity and other issues.

Katie List, the FRA's community planner with the Office of Railroad Development, said those issues would be explored more deeply at a future point in the process.

“We'll have estimates for a portion of the costs for the preferred routes,” said List. “We will not have identified the total estimated capital costs for these routes. That will require addition planning and analysis. But this plays a critical role in identifying what needs to be done to restore service.”

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The North Coast Hiawatha emerged as a preferred route for restoration and was included in the FRA's Corridor Identification Program. It was the only discontinued long-distance route to make the cut and is one of three long-distance routes recommended for funding, including the Cardinal and Sunset Limited lines.

Lyle Leitelt, chief of the FRA's project planning division, said the Corridor Identification Program has established the framework for reviewing new or improved passenger rail service. As the process moves forward, the FRA will select corridors for development and work with corridor sponsors, such as the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority, to develop a service plan.

That phase of the North Coast Hiawatha project has already begun, he said.

“It will guide intercity passenger rail development throughout the country, creating a pipeline for intercity passenger-rail projects ready for implementation,” said Leitelt. “Unlike previous federal passenger rail planning efforts, the Corridor Identification Program is intended to both support sustainable long-term development and establish a capital project pipeline ready for federal funding.”

Work remains down the line

Along with the North Coast Hiawatha, the FRA selected 68 other routes across 44 states for grant funding associated with Phase 1 of the process. That step will establish the proposed schedule and budget for a future service development plan.

It's the first of the three-step process, said Leitelt.

“It's really establishing that initial framework, and understanding what technical work needs to be done in that process. We'll work with the (Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority) in developing those materials,” Leitelt said. “One of those items is a budget. We want to understand how much money, design and schedule is needed to move those corridors forward.”


Once the “budget” is established, the North Coast Hiawatha and other preferred routes will move on to Phase 2, which would establish the service development plan. That step requires a 10% match and, once finished, it will result in a capital project inventory.

Preferred routes identified in that phase will advance to Phase 3 based on the FRA's discretion and funding. Phase 3, which will require a 20% match, will complete a route's engineering and environment work.

“We've been working diligently to meet Congress' intent of this study. It plays a critical role in identifying what needs to be done to restore service,” said List. “We've gotten a lot of feedback. The FRA received 47,000 comments in the month after we presented these (proposed) maps. We're still processing these comments but overall, 99% of the comments were supportive of long-distance passenger rail in the U.S.”

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg speaks with Missoula County Commissioners Dave Strohmaier, center, and Josh Slotnick. (Courtesy photo)
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg speaks with Missoula County Commissioners Dave Strohmaier, center, and Josh Slotnick. (Courtesy photo)

As part of the process, the FRA has already developed a high-level service schedule for the proposed North Coast Hiawatha, which will connect Chicago and Seattle through Bozeman and Missoula, and a number of other counties and towns between.

According to the analysis, the route would span more than 2,300 miles and take roughly 50 hours between Chicago and Seattle. It would serve 44 stations, including 11 stations in small communities, and add service to 19 existing Amtrak stations.

It also would serve an additional 1.1 million people over the current baseline figure, along with 210,000 people in rural areas and 29,000 people living on tribal land. It would offer new access to two major medical centers, 24 schools of higher education, four military bases and two national parks.

The FRA will submit its report and recommendations to Congress later this year. And while the process remains unfinished, advocates of restoring the North Coast Hiawatha remain optimistic, in part due to comments offered Friday by Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg.

“We're making good progress on the Amtrak Daily Long-Distance Service Study, that's bringing us even closer to restoring previously discontinued lines and creating new lines, too. This marks the beginning of a new era for American rail,” Buttigieg said. “You've spent years advocating for the restoration of this (Hiawatha) line. Now, you're putting pen to paper in new ways to build the plan, the budget and the timeline to turn that advocacy into results.”