Passenger train service can offer many benefits to rural communities

Guest Opinion By Mark Meyer
Sunday, November 21, 2021
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The Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority (BSPRA) is a consortium of counties from Wibaux in Eastern Montana to Sanders in Northwest Montana who seek reinstatement of the North Coast Hiawatha (NCH) Amtrak passenger train which operated from Chicago to Seattle and was discontinued in October of 1979. While not all counties along the route belong to the BSPRA, Dawson, Custer, Wibaux and Prairie counties do. At the beginning of October of this year, BSPRA released the results of a study it commissioned with the Rail Passengers Association (RPA) to study revival of the NCH passenger service through Glendive.

Similar studies have been done elsewhere by RPA, and without exception, the result is always that the service would produce a huge economic benefit, and this is no exception. Both the RPA and BSPRA have touted the projected $271 million economic benefit and 426,000 passengers annually. With the signing of Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act by the President this week, the BSPRA is touting the study as a vehicle to obtaining some of the funding in the bill for resurrecting the North Coast Hiawatha.

It should be noted, however, that this study does NOT consider mandatory components such as train schedule, train equipment, amenities at stations, the number of stations, crew districts, required new mechanical facilities, track and signal infrastructure that would be demanded by host railroads, and crew districts along the route. Indeed, the host freight railroads were not consulted for the study. And it’s important to remember that after 42 years of no passenger trains, many of the components to making the service are no longer in existence, and will need to be added, likely at substantial expense. (A 2009 study pegged the cost for reviving the NCH service at over $1 billion without considering all station and track infrastructure costs.)

Though it is logical to dismiss the entire study simply based on all the necessary components which were ignored, a deep dive into the ridership figures in the study – and accepting them at face value – leaves one to wonder why the BSPRA (and its member counties) is touting this report, as it shows the train has little utility in the state of Montana. And while the overall ridership number is huge, there’s little consistency or logic in the numbers created. In fact, the average Montanan would roll his/her eyes over many of the ridership figures. For example:

*Only 13.8% of projected ridership is in Montana (which has 34% of the train’s route miles). Most of the ridership is concentrated in Washington, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.

*Medora, North Dakota is proposed as a stop for Theodore Roosevelt National Park, yet projected ridership is no more per capita than in Wibaux or Prairie counties.

*Ridership at an Arlee (population 641) would be 93% that of Missoula (population 73,489).

*Ridership at Missoula is only 71% that of Sandpoint, Idaho (population 9,931), and ridership at Sandpoint is to be 131% that of Spokane (metro population over 700.000).

*The Bozeman stop serves the largest tourist-oriented area in the state of Montana as well as its largest university and is correspondingly home to the busiest airport by far. But the study projects more ridership at Dickinson and Detroit Lakes than in Bozeman.

*Helena is projected to have more ridership than Missoula and Billings combined.

*Billings is projected to have only 46% of the ridership of Bismarck, ND.

One of the goals of the BSPRA in seeking to rein state the NCH is to serve more of Montana’s population, where the current Amtrak service on the Empire Builder (EB) route across Northern Montana does not. “The restored North Coast Hiawatha would have characteristics broadly similar to Amtrak’s Empire Builder, Texas Eagle and Sunset Limited routes, and our previous station-by-station work allowed us to generalize about likely passenger behavior on the restored North Coast route,” states the study. Yet, here’s how the restored NCH compares with the current Amtrak EB:

*The easternmost six counties along the NCH route in Montana (including Dawson) have 142% of the population of the easternmost three counties along the EB route, but projected ridership is only 93% that of the EB.

*While the counties through which the EB operates in Montana have only 31.4% of the population of the counties through which a reinstated NCH would traverse, actual EB ridership was 103% of that projected for the NCH. And the route through Southern Montana is about 100 miles further and would be hours longer.

*The Bozeman stop for Yellowstone National Park and the Big Sky Resort is projected to have only 86% of the ridership of East Glacier Park on the EB route (one of three stations for Glacier National Park), despite the East Glacier stop being open only 5 months of the year.

*Livingston in Park County could also be considered a stop for Yellowstone National Park. Havre in Hill County has little tourist draw. Both Park and Hill counties have about the same population, but EB ridership at Havre is 152% that projected at Liv ingston in the study.

*Missoula is projected to have ridership only 23.7% that of Whitefish.

*Williston on the EB route is very similar demographically to Dickinson on the NCH route (both Bakken Boom locations). Yet the projected ridership at Dickinson is only 43% that of Williston.

*Ridership at St. Paul/ Minneapolis is projected to be only 67% that of the EB; at Spokane, it’s only 30%, and at Seattle only 72%. But ridership for the NCH at Detroit Lakes, St. Cloud, Red Wing, Winona, Tomah, and Milwaukee respectively is projected to be a whopping 297%, 430%, 236%, 155%, 164%, and 318% that of the EB where they share the same route and stations.

Broadly similar? Not even close.

Clearly, this study is NOT one you’d want to see if you were a true proponent of returning rail passenger service in Southern Montana – but that’s not the intent. You’re just supposed to look at the big numbers.

Intercity passenger trains can offer many benefits to rural communities in states like Montana. Those benefits should be the focus, and not the contents of a study so flawed it lacks any real value.

The NCH study is available at: aabc2212d364dd39/t/6 168ad0dcaac9b26e3 4c5663/1634250007612/North +Coast+Hiawatha+Restorat ion.pdf

FY2019 Empire Builder ridership is indicated here: site/assets/files/3441/25.pdf

(Amtrak lists station ridership is for both entraining or detraining passengers at each station, so the ridership indicated needs to be halved to avoid duplication.)

Mark Meyer is a native Montanan. He has been a passenger train advocate for over 50 years and worked for Burlington Northern and BNSF for over 40 years, including nearly 20 years managing locomotive power on BNSF’s North Region, including its route through Glendive. He can be reached at