Hundreds Show Support for New Rail Route

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – An effort to restore rail passenger service through southern Montana brought people from around the state to a Helena meeting of the Montana Association of Railroad Passengers.

More than 50 people shoehorned into the conference room of the Chamber of Commerce Building for Friday’s meeting.

“It just shows you that people in Montana and across the nation need another choice, and that there should be some changes to our transportation system,” said Michael Ackley of Missoula, vice president of the association.

Representatives of Montana’s congressional delegation were on hand, along with representatives of a few chambers of commerce and city commissions.

Amtrak’s North Coast Hiawatha train, which ran from 1971 to 1979, ran from Billings to Missoula and traveled through Butte. Any restored service, however, would likely pass through Helena instead, since the line between Butte and Whitehall hasn’t been used for many years and needs extensive work.

Lynda Frost of Montana Rail Link, which operates on the track between Billings and Missoula, said the carrier is taking a wait-and-see approach.

“MRL has not really taken a position,” she said. “As you know, we are in the business of hauling freight. But should this materialize, we would be very willing players in that effort.”

One of the next steps will be a survey of students at the University of Montana, hoping to demonstrate a segment of demand from people who would use the train if it were revived. The study will be conducted by the university’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research.

“People have pretty warm, wonderful feelings about passenger rail service, especially in Montana,” said the bureau’s survey development director, John Baldridge. “My challenge is to not only capture the positive feelings we know exist, but to try to estimate what the actual paying ridership might be among students.”

Jordan Hess, who chairs the Associated Students of the University of Montana’s Board on Transportation, said many students don’t have cars, and many more use their cars only to travel to and from Missoula — but don’t drive much once they’re in town. Still, their cars take up parking spots and often create congestion.

“Restoring the southern route of rail passenger service would alleviate a lot of those concerns and would create a number of permanent jobs along the route,” he said. “It just seems like this is an essential social service.”

Dick Turner of the Montana Department of Transportation said that while the department would support service on the southern route, “our first priority in Montana is to preserve the Empire Builder service” along the Hi-Line.

Turner noted the possibility of reviving the southern route has been studied numerous times since service was discontinued in 1979, by the departments of Transportation and Commerce as well as by the Legislature and Amtrak itself.

But Ackley, the association vice president, said he believes high energy prices may be the stimulus needed to get the rail service restored.