Monday, October 19, 2009

Report discusses southern Montana Amtrak route

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If you build it, they will come. But it will cost you a lot of money, reports The Missoulian in Missoula, Mont. That's the conclusion of an Amtrak report released Oct. 16 on the possible revival of the North Coast Hiawatha Route through southern Montana. It notes the potential for nearly 360,000 riders a year. But startup costs are estimated at a whopping $1.043 billion, "a figure that is subject to significant uncertainty."

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. Some travelers have grown tired of the cost and restrictions that come with airline travel, and others want a "green" way to get around. The trains would deliver, 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."

On the local front, Missoula City Councilman Dave Strohmaier has been driving the engine to bring back passenger trains. He was wading through the document, but said even having the study in hand was a success. That such a train would attract many riders - possibly from Glendive, Miles City, Billings, Forsyth, Livingston, Bozeman, Helena, Missoula and Paradise - is no surprise to people who have been championing the return of rail along the route, Strohmaier said. But the study confirmed the hunch.

Amtrak's Empire Builder runs from Chicago to Seattle, and it serves the northern tier of the state. Montanans such as U.S. Sen. Jon Tester have said they don't want the return of a southern route to compromise the Empire Builder. He had another concern Friday, although he generally supports expanding rail service.

"We have to consider whether such a hefty estimated price tag makes sense in these tough economic times," said the Montana Democrat in a statement e-mailed from his staff. "I look forward to hearing Montanans' views about Amtrak's study."

What follows is information from the report:

* Annual projected ridership is 359,800 passengers, and projected annual revenue is $43 million. "These figures include 65,800 riders who are projected to ride the restored North Coast Hiawatha service instead of the current Empire Builder route, resulting in an estimated $8 million reduction in Empire Builder annual revenue."

* "The single largest cost to commence operating the restored North Coast Hiawatha is the cost of upgrading existing track structure, signaling, and grade crossing warning devices." Preliminary estimates put the cost at $619.8 million.

* Other costs include the following: Positive Train Control, required in some places would run roughly $60 million; the cost of 18 locomotives and 54 passenger cars runs an estimated $330 million; restoring stations and bringing them into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act is priced at some $17.6 million; an estimated 269 more employees would be needed, and that's $15.8 million in one-time costs.

* Implementation of service would require at least four to five years from the time money is available. "Amtrak recommends that federal and state policymakers determine if intercity passenger rail service along the former ... route should be reintroduced and, if so, that they provide the required levels of capital and operating funding to Amtrak."

* The train would benefit the environment. "Rail passenger service is, on average, 19 percent more energy efficient than air travel and 28 percent more energy efficient than auto travel. Rail service also emits several times less carbon dioxide per passenger-mile than either air or highway travel."

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