In a major step forward for the restoration of passenger rail service across Montana's "Southern Route", the federal government agrees to inject a significant investment into pursuing the idea.

But the idea of seeing the "Hiawatha Route" trains rolling between Billings and Missoula again will depend on whether the report shows there's public interest in using the service.

It's the latest major move for the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority, which has been working hard on the idea for just over 3 years.

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The next major step for more Montana passenger trains

The BSPRA got rolling on the idea of bringing trains back to the Southern Route in the fall of 2020. The idea is to see if it's possible to bring passenger rail service back to the line that was closed to transporting people when Amtrak scaled back in the 1970s.

While multiple counties, cities, and other organizations have been participating in that effort, there hasn't been the money available for a formal study of the idea, until now.

Study money approved

Last week, Senator Jon Tester announced the BSPRA will be receiving $500,000 in Corridor Identification and Development or Corridor ID funds to study service restoration. That money comes through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

Tester says the money will help the Rail Authority collect the data to show the viability of restoring the "North Coast Hiawatha" route, to show there's a "need and that it can work."

"I think it can. The Old Hiawatha Route worked well before it was taken out," Tester noted. "I think there's an opportunity here to, once again, help with the economy. If they can take that money, and that planning grant, and really plan for it, it puts them in line, providing they do good work, and providing the need is there, it puts them in line to get that old route established."

Tester and other local officials working on the idea believe it will be a good economic boost for the entire state, supplementing the "Empire Builder" service across Northern Montana.

BSPRA map
BSPRA map
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Restoration of historic route

The North Coast Hiawatha route was an Amtrak route that connected Chicago, Illinois and Seattle, Washington with Montana stops in Glendive, Billings, Bozeman, Butte, Helena, and Missoula, that ran from 1971-1979. But the legacy of the Hiawatha goes back much further, dating to the historic service on the Milwaukee Road when it served the Northern Tier states.

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Gallery Credit: Mike Smith

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