Restoration of North Coast Hiawatha line to be part of infra bill study

Momentum to bring Amtrak to southern Montana builds

By: - February 22, 2022 5:30 pm

The Amtrak’s California Zephyr (L) stops at the Denver Union rail station during its daily 2,438-mile trip to Emeryville/San Francisco from Chicago that takes roughly 52 hours on March 24, 2017 in Denver, United States. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Officials are confident that the long-defunct Amtrak line that once snaked through Montana’s southern tier en route to the West Coast will be part of a forthcoming federal study into discontinued intercity passenger rail lines — an important step in the mission to restore Amtrak service between the state’s most populous cities.

Dave Strohmaier, a Missoula County commissioner and chair of the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority — which seeks to establish a regional passenger rail authority in southern Montana — has been at the forefront of the effort to restore the North Coast Hiawatha line, which connected Chicago to Seattle via Billings, Butte and Missoula until 1979. He spent last week in Washington, D.C., he said, to ensure that possibility of restoring the Hiawatha line would be included in a study authorized as part of Congress’ infrastructure funding bill, which became law last November.

“Up until now, we’ve just been waiting to see what the status is,” Strohmaier said. 

Democratic Montana Sen. Jon Tester and Mississippi Republican Sen. Roger Wicker worked to include language in the infrastructure bill that set aside $15 million for a nationwide study “to evaluate the restoration of daily intercity rail” along lines that are discontinued or run on a non-daily basis.

Indeed, Strohmaier said federal officials confirmed that both the North Coast Hiawatha and the Pioneer, which until 1997 headed south from Seattle through eastern Oregon and Idaho, would be a part of the infrastructure bill study.

A spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration said the same.

“FRA believes the statute provides a clear directive that discontinued Amtrak routes, such the North Coast Hiawatha, must be included in the long-distance service study,” the agency said.

FRA will work with Amtrak to complete the study in the next two years, the spokesperson added, a requirement in the bill.

“The clock is already ticking, so there’s some sense of urgency moving forward,” Strohmaier said. 

Montana has one existing Amtrak line, the Empire Builder, which heads through Havre and the Flathead on the way West.

The Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority has been working to restore the North Coast Hiawatha Line for the last two years.  They’re not the first to push the issue since Amtrak shuttered the line in the ’70s, citing a significant operating cost. A prior study on restoration of passenger rail in southern Montana was completed in 2009, but momentum to turn that information into action fizzled out.

“I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say this is probably the most important development in the last four decades” for restoration of the North Coast Hiawatha, Strohmaier said. 

The 2009 report, prepared by Amtrak at Congress’ behest, predicted higher-than-average ridership for a long-distance route and above-average income from fares. However, it also estimated significant infrastructure costs to ensure that rail lines and stations are operational and have capacity to carry both freight and passenger trains.

Those numbers are likely outdated. The new study provides an opportunity to see a current estimate of ridership, costs and the like — some of the work to boost rail capacity may have been completed in the 13 years since the 2009 report came out, for example.

“What would need to happen before you see passenger trains rolling down these tracks is additional double tracking and additional sidings that would allow for the free movement of both freight and passenger trains without either significantly impeding each other,” Strohmaier said last year.

The hope is that the information from the study, combined with the $25 billion in the infrastructure bill for passenger rail projects nationwide, will spur real action, he said.

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Arren Kimbel-Sannit
Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Arren Kimbel-Sannit is an Arizona-bred journalist who has covered politics, policy and power building at every level of government. Before getting his dose of northern exposure, Arren worked as a reporter in all manner of Arizona newsrooms, for the Dallas Morning News and for POLITICO in Washington, D.C. He has a special interest in how land-use decisions affect working-class people, which he displayed through reporting on the epidemic of pedestrian deaths in the U.S. for the Los Angeles Times and PBS Newshour. He's also covered housing, agriculture, the Trump presidency and more.