All Aboard?

Passenger rail conference explores vision for southern train route
By 
Miriam Campan
Reporter
Tuesday, August 31, 2021
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A map of the proposed passenger rail route shows participating counties in dark green, and non-participating counties which could reap some rewards from the route in light green. The existing AmTrak route, the Empire Builder, is shown in blue across the northern part of the state. Photo courtesy of Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority

Is it possible to restore passenger rail service across southern Montana? That’s the question behind the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority’s three-day conference this past weekend at the Yogo Inn in Lewistown.
According to the organization, passenger rail service in southern Montana ended 42 years ago. BSPRA would like to bring it back. Sixteen counties are now on board with a proposal to create passenger rail service running from the west side of Montana down across the southern tier of counties and across to the east side of the state.
The proposed route would connect travelers with AmTrak service in places like Portland, Oregon and Chicago, Illinois, and could include additional connections south to Denver and Salt Lake City. Earlier this summer, Sen. Jon Tester said the concept of restoring discontinued passenger rail routes enjoys bipartisan support in Congress.
According to Rail Authority Vice Chair Jason Stuart, there is no government at this time that oversees the expansion of a passenger rail service through the southern portion of the Montana.
“A regional passenger rail authority, allowed under Montana state law, would fill this gap by creating the governance structure to investigate, analyze, seek and accept funding for, and facilitate implementation of, long-distance, inter-city rail service across south Montana,” Stuart said, explaining the purpose behind BSPRA.

The proposed rail project is estimated to cost $66 billion and would require federal funding. But even if funding is approved, it could be five to seven years before any ground is broken, according to Stuart.
This weekend’s conference was the first time rail authority board members met in person.
Prior to the keynote address by Federal Railroad Administration Deputy Administrator Amit Bose, conference attendees engaged in strategic planning sessions on relationship building, creating “buy-ins” through ambassadors, developing communication and marketing strategies, and the hiring of an executive director with an established physical office. The group hopes to have a director in place by Jan. 1, 2022.
In his keynote address, Bose spoke to the conference attendees on the advantages of reestablishing a passenger rail service in southern Montana and throughout the nation.
“Transit by railway is sustainable and renewable. President Biden believes in rail, which addresses the climate crisis and can sustain economic development for years to come. This is a long-term vision and we need government cooperation for a sustainable and passenger friendly rail system. Passenger rail service will be the preferred mode for long-distance travel,” said Bose.
Twelve original Montana counties officially founded the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority and have been joined by four more since then. More information on BSPRA is available at www.bigskyrail.org.

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