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Discussion about MRL status expected during Passenger Rail Authority meeting

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Posted at 8:33 AM, Jan 12, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-12 10:33:22-05

MISSOUL — News of Montana Rail Link's (MRL) decision to transfer operations to Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) is expected to get some discussion during this week's regular meeting of the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority, as the BSPRA accelerates planning to share the rails for passenger traffic.

Even before Monday's announcement about the future of Montana Rail Link, the "to do" list for the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority was expanding for 2022.

Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier is excited about the progress the Authority made last year, expanding to include 17-Montana counties and organizations outside the state.

"The last two years have been watershed events in our region when it comes to passenger rail," Strohmaier said. "In the year 2021, we accomplished more by way of the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority than the collective efforts over the past 42 years to restore passenger rail service."

Strohmaier says passage of the federal infrastructure bill last year was a tremendous shot in the arm for the drive for passenger rail service.

"Actually has provisions in it that will allow us to significantly move this project forward, both in terms of studying and analyzing how to restore the North Coast Hiawatha through Southern Montana, but actually also includes real dollars for project implementation, and that's something we have not ever seen before."

MRL's announcement to transfer all freight traffic to BNSF simply means the Authority would be working with BNSF, instead of MRL, to coordinate rail traffic. And the two year study would provide the data to help work out those details.

"But one of the main deliverables that I hope to see come out of this study is a service development plan that will be a reflective of those conversations with the host railroads with Amtrak, with the communities who are looking for service also," Strohmaier says.

Those are some big steps but Strohmaier — long an advocate for the return of passenger rail — is undaunted.

"I do not want to be here having a conversation with you 10 years from now talking about how we need to blow the dust off of another study. I want to be talking about how trains are running!"