The Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority (BSPRA) has submitted its proposal for a southern passenger rail in Montana to the Corridor ID Program of the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). 

BSPRA hopes the North Coast Hiawatha (NCH) corridor from Chicago to Seattle/ Portland through southern Montana will be one of routes chosen by the FRA for funding, according to Dave Strohmaier, Chairman, Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority. For each corridor selected, the FRA will award an initial grant of $500,000 for preliminary planning.

According to the FRA, “The Corridor ID Program is intended to become the primary means for directing Federal financial support and technical assistance toward the development of proposals for new or improved intercity passenger rail services throughout the United States.”

Its proponents claim that the North Coast Hiawatha will transform the economy of the “Greater Northwest” region, revitalizing rural communities and tribal nations and provide access for underserved citizens to health care, education, other services, and civic resources often unreachable in winter when highways become unreliable or hazardous. BSPRA states that the proposed route will serve as a key catalyst for creating or renewing other passenger rail routes in the American West and Canada and will help awaken a 21st century rail renaissance in western North America.

Strohmaier credited Quandel Consultants and KLJ Engineering with assisting in making application to the federal government.

The North Coast Hiawatha route is already under analysis as part of the FRA’s Amtrak Daily Long-Distance Service Study. The Corridor ID Program will work with that study to complete a service development plan and preliminary engineering—precursors to resuming passenger rail service through southern Montana and beyond.

 Strohmaier said that the project has received letters of support from BNSF Railway, Amtrak, five state DOTs, U.S. senators from North Dakota and Montana, and municipalities.

Some counties in Montana, including Yellowstone County, have not endorsed the proposal due to concerns of costs that might be imposed on the counties and because of concerns about how a passenger line could disrupt rail freight.

The concept of a southern passenger rail line is not a new idea. A similar rail service, Amtrak, already passes through the norther tier of Montana, which is significantly subsidized by the federal government.  Amtrak traverses the entire country and reported $1.6 billion in capital spending in 2017 with operating expenses totaling $4.2 billion. Montana’s Amtrak route, called the Empire Builder, passes through Havre and the Flathead between Seattle and Chicago.

Yellowstone County was first requested to support the concept of a Montana route 13 years ago, according to County Commissioner John Ostlund. At that time, he said the estimated cost was $1 billion, an estimate that is probably double that now.  “Passenger rail service doesn’t make money,” said Ostlund.

 The Montana Department of Transportation website reports that in 2008 Amtrak estimated the capital and up-front costs “…to exceed $1 billion, annual operating cost would exceed $74 million, resulting in a $31 million annual operating loss.”


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