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Rail Authority chairman optimistic about passenger rail discussions with BNSF

Posted at 12:12 PM, Jan 13, 2022

MISSOULA — The chair of the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority is optimistic advocates of passenger train service will be able to forge a good working relationship with Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF), when the freight carrier takes over from Montana Rail Link (MRL).

Monday, MRL announced it was getting out of the regional railroad business, a venture started by investor Dennis Washington in 1987. MRL leaders said the freight market had changed, with 90% of the loads on the lines between Billings and Sandpoint already being handled by BNSF trains.

The development comes as the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority (BSPRA) is building momentum to return passenger rail service to Montana's "southern route." But BSPRA Chair Dave Strohmaier told his colleagues during an online meeting yesterday he's confident the larger rail operation will be a good partner.

"Burlington Northern Santa Fe has a long track record across the nation of working collaboratively with passenger rail interests," Strohmaier stated during Wednesday's online meeting. "And I suspect that will continue with our efforts here in the State of Montana and beyond. So, my glass is half full that we will have a good working relationship going forward and that working relationship will be with a partner who has a tremendous amount of experience in this area."

Federal law requires freight carriers to collaborate with Amtrak to provide passenger rail service. The Rail Authority is expecting to hear from both MRL and BNSF representatives during their February meeting.