The railway stretching 2,222 miles from Chicago to Seattle, once known as the North Coast Hiawatha, has been dormant for almost five decades, concluding its services in 1979. However, the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority is currently spearheading a prolonged effort to usher in a new era of train travel.
Jess Peterson, the executive director of the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority, emphasizes the significance of this initiative, stating to MTN, “The amount of workforce we could move along here, the connectivity it brings, that’s revitalizing all these areas and is so important.”
Presently, Montana’s sole passenger train service is the Amtrak-operated Empire Builder route, with 12 stops between Wolf Point and Libby. According to Amtrak data for Fiscal Year 2023, the Empire Builder only saw 348,993 riders, averaging less than 1,000 riders per day. The ticket revenue for the Empire Builder covered only 65% of the train’s operational costs.
The proposed revival of the North Hiawatha envisions the route heading south, originating from North Dakota through Glendive, with stops in Miles City, Billings, Bozeman, Butte, Missoula, and more.
Jess Peterson notes the enthusiastic response from communities along the route, even those not directly part of the initiative. “We have 20-plus member counties, our most recent being Treasure County in Eastern Montana. And you have these small towns along the way that say, ‘We want to be a part of it,’ even when their counties aren’t a part of it.”
Peterson adds that BSPRA is receiving interest from communities off the main line, with hopes that spur lines could connect them to the main rail. “We’ve had money come in from Bridger, from Bear Creek, of course Carbon County has been a great member, a great supporter,” Peterson said. “You go down into Beaverhead County, we’re going to be meeting with them here in February talking about why they need to get involved. The City of Lima sent money in their county.”
Established in 2020, BSPRA is a transportation authority dedicated to facilitating passenger rail travel in Montana. The first phase of their initiative to reintroduce passenger rail service to the southern tracks involves conducting an extensive study of existing track conditions, community interest, and other project elements.