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Billings is one of the newest municipalities to endorse the proposed passenger rail plan in Southern Montana



Billings, Montana – Montanans are accustomed to lengthy travel periods and distances via automobiles, trains, and aircraft. A recent initiative called Gathering Speed aims to increase the number of passenger train connections that travelers may make to major U.S. cities as well as across the state.

The 2,222 miles of track that link Chicago and Seattle were formerly part of the North Coast Hiawatha, a route traveled by passengers.

Even though that train hasn’t run in almost 50 years—it was discontinued in 1979—the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority has been working for years to bring rail travel back to the public.

“The amount of workforce we could move along here, the connectivity it brings, that’s revitalizing all these areas and is so important,” said Jess Peterson, executive director of the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority.

There are now 12 stations on Amtrak’s Empire Builder line between Wolf Point and Libby, which is the sole passenger rail service available in Montana.

The North Hiawatha would be revived in a southerly direction, entering from North Dakota via Glendive and stopping in Miles City, Billings, Bozeman, Butte, Missoula, and other locations.

“We have 20-plus member counties, our most recent being Treasure County in Eastern Montana,” Peterson said. “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.”

Communities off the route’s main line are also showing interest in BSPRA, according to Peterson, but they are hoping spur lines will let them connect to the main rail system.

“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.”

Founded in 2020, BSPRA is a transportation authority that permits passenger rail transit inside the state of Montana. A thorough analysis of the current track, community interest, and other project components is being carried out as part of the first phase of their initiative to restore passenger rail service to the southern tracks.

Sen. Jon Tester of the United States obtained a significant amount of funding—$500,000—from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to aid in the study’s funding.

BSPRA “will take a look at this from a lot of different angles to find out if this route makes sense for Montana, makes sense for the country,” Tester said recently.

Though Montanans can’t put the cart before the horse, Tester acknowledged that he sees possibilities for the southern route.

“The opportunities for business to be connected up with bigger cities like Chicago, Seattle, Spokane, be able to move people and product. I think that that’s very, very positive,” Tester said. “How much it would be used? That’s what this study will find out. I think from a recreation standpoint, it speaks for itself.”

However, not all counties have joined the movement, and Yellowstone County remains one of the main opponents.

“My thoughts on the passenger rail service probably hasn’t changed,” said Yellowstone County Commissioner John Ostlund. “To spend a billion dollars to make a few million seems like a crazy idea to me.”

Ostlund, one of the three county commissioners, has been adamantly opposed to the project for several years, citing issues with return on investment, travel time, expenses, and freight disruptions.

“I don’t think it’s the most effective use of our money,” Ostlund said. “If we’re going to put billions of dollars into Montana, the highway system could use billions of dollars of influx. That really moves traffic, freight, trucks, cars and people.”

Ostlund does not anticipate that his attitude will alter, even though early this month, Billings city leaders committed the city as a partner in the project.

“Billings was founded as a rail hub and played a leadership role in rail in Montana,” said Billings Mayor Bill Cole on Dec. 14. “Our community and people want to be part of this process of restoring and bringing connectivity via passenger rail to Billings, Yellowstone County and the region.”

Bringing Billings on board demonstrates that plans are on for the passenger train’s future.

“Montana is a rail state, this is who we are and the future of rail is bright,” Peterson said.

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