Will it be possible to ride a hydrogen-powered train between Montana cities like Billings, Bozeman, and Missoula in a few years? Or even hundreds of miles to the Midwest, or to the Pacific Coast?

It's a "big picture" idea, but one discussed this Friday during the annual Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority's annual conference in Missoula.

And even if such a futuristic idea never comes about, it's more likely that ever just restoring regular passenger rail service to Montana's Southern Route is closer to reality.

READ MORE: Want to Ride a Train Across Montana?

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All the key players in town

BSPRA Chair Dave Strohmaier says this conference is exciting because it will have all the key players in place to discuss the future.

"We will have assembled here in Missoula, representatives from the Federal Railroad Administration, from Amtrak, U.S. Department of Transportation and Industry representatives," explains Strohmaier.

"What we're hoping to cover is an update from the Federal Railroad Administration on where things stand with this long-distance passenger rail study that is coming to a conclusion."

That study has the Southern Route as one of the "preferred discontinued routes". Trains haven't used that path since the 1970s.

Planning already underway

At the same time, some long-range planning has already started.

"We are going to be kicking off the actual planning process for the restoration of this route," Strohmaier says. "We were accepted into a nationwide program, the North Coast Hiawatha Route, was accepted as the only new long-distance route in the entire nation accepted into the project development pipeline."

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Future ideas too

One of the more interesting items on Friday's agenda will be a presentation on how to use hydrogen power for rail development. While that's relatively new technology, it's an investment in clean, affordable energy that can use the existing infrastructure.

And that kind of thinking is what is tied to the rail restoration promoting economic development.

"As much as we think rail is a great way to travel, it's not just an end unto itself," Strohamier notes. "It's a means to an end of creating vibrant, vital communities."

Public welcome

The public is welcome to attend the conference, which starts at 8:30 Friday at the Missoula Public Library. The presentations will also be streamed online.  

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Gallery Credit: Ace Sauerwein

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