MISSOULA – An Amtrak report released Friday said the possible revival of the North Coast Hiawatha Route through southern Montana could attract nearly 360,000 riders a year, but startup costs are estimated at $1.043 billion.
The Chicago to Seattle line through Montana’s southern tier operated until 1979, and fans of passenger rail have been rallying to reinstate the service.
Missoula City Councilman Dave Strohmaier, who has been trying bring back the popularity of passenger trains, said Friday that even having the study in hand was a success.
“This really is a milestone day that we’ve been working toward for a number of years now,” he said.
Strohmaier said it is no surprise that such a route would attract many riders — possibly from Glendive, Miles City, Billings, Forsyth, Livingston, Bozeman, Helena, Missoula and Paradise.
According to the report, “restoration of the North Coast Hiawatha would provide a passenger rail option that does not exist today, as well as creating a safe and environmentally friendly travel option for the three million annual visitors to Yellowstone National Park.”
But U.S. Sen. Jon Tester said Friday he is concerned a southern route could compromise Amtrak’s Empire Builder, which runs from Chicago to Seattle and serves the northern tier of Montana.
“We have to consider whether such a hefty estimated price tag makes sense in these tough economic times,” the Montana Democrat said. “I look forward to hearing Montanans’ views about Amtrak’s study.”
The study, which projected an annual revenue of $43 million if the route were restored, said an estimated 65,800 riders would ride the southern tier line instead of the current Empire Builder route. That would mean an estimated $8 million reduction in annual revenue for the northern route.
According to the study, about $619.8 million would have to be spent on upgrading existing track structure, signaling, and grade crossing warning devices along the North Coast Hiawatha Route.
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