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Initial meetings already underway on passenger rail idea for Southern Montana

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Posted at 1:12 PM, Jan 21, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-21 15:12:10-05

MISSOULA — The Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority is wasting no time pursuing the idea of restoring passenger rail service across Southern Montana with initial meetings starting up to analyze how passenger and freight trains will share the track.

The Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority became an official organization a few weeks ago, with board members across the state meeting virtually Wednesday as they iron out details of the new effort.

Rob Eaton, who heads Government Affairs and State Supported Service for Amtrak told the board there will be a lot of questions to be answered as the Authority moves forward.

“What type of intercity passenger train do you want? Where do you want it to go? Where do you want it to go? Do you want it to be with just within the State of Montana or do you want to connect to other states?" Eaton said. "And then where does it connect to other existing intercity passenger rail, part of the uniform part of the network?”

Eaton says there will have to be meetings with the Montana Legislature and Department of Transportation. And of course, building relationships with the "host railroads", Montana Rail Link and Burlington Northern Santa Fe, which would share the tracks.

“We've had some initial conversations. I’ve had some initial meetings with Montana Rail Link. Commissioner Strohmaier was so kind to invite me earlier this year," Eaton said. "We’ve had some in-person meetings as well as I met with Montana Rail Link. They know of you obviously, but your relationship with Montana Rail Link will have to be strong as well since their the host there. They’re the host. It’s their infrastructure.”

Eaton cautioned there are some major points to be addressed there, such as how much longer freight trains would have to use sidings to clear Amtrak cars. But he says Amtrak is ready to help resolve questions that come up -- and find money to pay for improvements.

“We will provide you guidance and support where appropriate. We have a resource of information regarding old studies as well as our experience of modeling cost allocations for both long-distance and state-supported," Eaton said. "And my role here is to serve as a resource for you as you go down this journey."

The Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority is working now on all the organizational details to operate.