If there was one theme to Friday's Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority's annual conference, it was one of accomplishment, with a lot of work to come.

However, there were many messages of encouragement during the day, both from Federal Rail Administration officials and the private sector working on breakthrough technology with hydrogen and hybrid trains.

The conference was the latest milestone for BSPRA, which was formed less than 4-years ago, but with the restoration of Montana's "Southern Route" already on the list for possible projects.

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Messages of encouragement from FRA

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg led off the day with a taped message, thanking local leaders for what he learned during a trip to Montana just last month, and acknowledging how the "Route of the Hiawatha" has emerged as the only new service being considered on a Rail Corridor Study and as a future long-distance route.

Dennis Bragg photo
Dennis Bragg photo

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During the keynote, Jennifer Mitchell, Deputy Administrator for the FRA was enthusiastic about the route and the resurgent interest in passenger rail across the country.

"We're very excited about the potential for the North Coast Hiawatha Line as well," Mitchell said. "We know that it would create jobs, generate $271, 000,000 in economic impact a year, and provide both affordable, safe, and clean transportation year-round to promote healthcare, tourism, education, and commerce. And to be able to upgrade those lines for both freight and passenger service."

Dennis Bragg photo
Dennis Bragg photo

More work ahead

Mitchell also challenged the Rail Authority to keep momentum by "embracing cooperation." 

"Those voices coming from the business community, the tourist community, the environmental advocates as well are so important to creating legislation and getting funding streams for passenger rail," Mitchell explained.

The "Hiawatha Route" is in the first phase of the three-phase study, which will eventually identify specific infrastructure, services, and funding. Amtrak stopped running on the "Southern Route" 45 years ago.

Future ideas

The conference also heard from a panel of experts working on the emerging tech of using hydrogen power and batteries for locomotives, which is already rolling out in Europe, with trials here in North America.

Montana has been awarded a small portion of a $1-billion grant for a Pacific Northwest Hydrogen Hub to study development and costs.

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It's time to hit the road—Stacker compiled a list of the best scenic drives in Montana using data from Tripadvisor as of March 2024.

Gallery Credit: Stacker

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