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Group supporting Montana passenger rail holds Billings meeting

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Posted at 5:33 PM, Aug 23, 2022

It’s been 42 years since passenger rail service ran through southern Montana and a group meeting here in Billings this week is fighting for its return. Some are skeptical the plan will work, but the group is garnering support.

It’s been a while since you could catch a train to another city from Billings.

“Many folks forget that there was, until 1979, passenger rail service through Billings, Montana, and through southern Montana,” said Dave Strohmaier of Missoula, the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority chairman.

A “second rail revolution” may be picking up steam. The Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority has spent the past two years fighting to have Montana included in a federal study to restore Amtrak service to discontinued routes, and they succeeded.

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The language was signed into law and the study will take 14 months to complete. Advocates hope it’s just the beginning.

“Also looking for opportunities by way of the bipartisan infrastructure law to expand passenger rail service through this region,” Strohmaier said.

The North Coast Hiawatha Line once ran through southern Montana to the West Coast. Like many routes, it was discontinued.

“In 1890, trains were the fastest way to move people across Montana. Now they’re the slowest,” said Yellowstone County Commissioner John Ostlund.

Ostlund has long been a vocal opponent of resurrecting passenger rail, concerned about the capital needed to make it happen.

“The study I read that was done by Amtrak 12 years ago said it would cost about a billion dollars to upgrade the tracks from freight rail to passenger rail. With inflation, I’m going to guess it’s two or three times that now,” Ostlund said.

Plans, however, have not been derailed. Billings this week is playing host to government and business representatives who want to resurrect passenger service for more reasons than one.

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“Some small communities in Eastern Montana, people who live there have to drive 175, 200 miles in Billings to catch a flight or see a doctor,” said Strohmaier.

Strohmaier spoke on the environmental aspects of having a passenger rail service.

“Whether it’s freight rail or passenger rail, way more efficient and environmentally conscious than moving goods and people by our highways,” Strohmaier said.

In Montana, 18 counties have signed on in support of the plan, including three tribes, Amtrak, BNSF Railway, and the Montana Department of Transportation. Yellowstone County is one of the big exceptions.

Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority is optimistic.

“I would argue that I have never in my years of elected service seen as much enthusiasm and support across the spectrum as this intuitive related to passenger rail,” said Strohmaier.

At this point, only time will tell.