More Passenger Rail Coming to Montana

Planning is underway to restore a 45-year-defunct regional passenger rail line connecting southern Montana to Billings and Amtrak’s east-west Empire Builder line from Seattle to Chicago.

2 minute read

May 14, 2024, 10:00 AM PDT

By Mary Hammon @marykhammon


Rail tracks on the left, rustic log-built train station painted reddish brown with a green metal roof and concrete platform on the right, evergreen forest and bright blue sky with fluffy white clouds in the background.

The Amtrak station at East Glacier Park Village, located just outside of Glacier National Park in Montana. | Sean Xu / Adobe Stock

The Big Sky Rail Authority has confirmed plans for two passenger rail routes through Montana, according to Missoula media outlet 8KPAX. A federal rail study has identified two preferred long-distance routes: upgrades to Amtrak’s east-west Empire Builder line connecting Seattle to Chicago that runs through the state and a restoration of the connecting north-south North Coast Hiawatha route from southern Montana to Billings, the state’s largest city.

Funding for the projects come from $8 billion in new grants announced by the Biden administration in December for rail projects. The Empire Builder upgrades will receive $15 million for upgrades, while $500,000 will go to the planning stage of the North Coast Hiawatha route, which Amtrak discontinued in 1979. The restoration of the north-south route is a massive win for the Big Sky Rail Authority, a coalition of 20 urban and rural counties and three tribal nations, which has been advocating for the project for the last few years.

“If folks are wondering about feasibility or not, that train has left the station,” Big Sky Rail Authority Chairperson Dave Strohmaier told 8KPAX. “We are no longer debating feasibility. We are in the planning stage as we speak to make this happen.”

According to a 2021 report from the Rail Passengers Association, total cost for restoration of the North Coast Hiawatha is estimated to generate $271 million in economic benefits to seven states and cost Amtrak $68 million to operate, which will be offset by the collection of $41 million in fars and other customer revenue. In addition to enhanced tourism opportunities for the state, the new line will offer major benefits for rural southern Montana residents, including connecting them to vital services like medical care in larger cities like Billings that they can’t access in their home counties.

Saturday, May 11, 2024 in 8KPAX

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