KFYR: Old North Coast Hiawatha rail route takes giant step towards reinstatement

by Michael Anthony

The Empire Builder, the Amtrak train that runs through northern North Dakota and Montana, has been the only route around here for decades. But supporters of passenger rail are fighting to bring back the North Coast Hiawatha route, which went through the southern half of the two states until it was shut down more than 40 years ago.

The North Coast Hiawatha route used to be in service during the 1970s, providing passenger rail service from Chicago to Seattle, following along Interstates 94 and 90 through North Dakota and Montana.

The Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority wants to reinstate the route, with vice-chairman Jason Stuart saying people in this region need more options to get to their destination besides driving for long periods of time.

“We need that ability to improve our quality of life for our communities so that our residents have the same accessibility as residents in other parts of the country, to get to where they need to go safely, comfortably and affordably,” said Stuart.

Last week, the idea of reinstatement got a big boost after an announcement from Senator Jon Tester, D-MT, stating the old route has been selected for Corridor ID funding. Being a part of the program means it will be developed as a long-term passenger rail project.

“We are a rural state. Connecting businesses and families together is important, and if we can do it by rail, it makes perfect sense,” said Tester.

While the news allows the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority to begin planning and development, they still have a long way to go before Amtrak heads south. The next big milestone will be the Federal Railroad Administration’s long-distance study, which will be released sometime next summer.

“I’m certainly very confident from everything the FRA has told us and that we’ve seen from them so far, that this route is also going to be right at or near the top of their list for the routes that the FRA and USDOT are going to recommend to congress and say, ‘Hey, you need to fund the restoration of this,’” said Stuart.

Stuart says the goal is to have twice daily service each way on the proposed route. He adds he wants the North Coast Hiawatha line to further improve services across the region and not take away anything from the Empire Builder, which runs across the Hi-Line of Montana.

Proposed stops would include most cities along Interstates 90 and 94, such as Fargo, Bismarck, Dickinson, Glendive and Billings.