Tester amendment explores return of southern Montana Amtrak route

Measure will also protect the Empire Builder, senator says

(WASHINGTON, D.C.) – Senator Jon Tester wants Congress to be 'all aboard' with the possibility of restoring passenger train service to southern Montana—as long as it doesn't hurt current Amtrak service across the Hi-Line.

The U.S. Senate today accepted an amendment by Tester requiring Amtrak to evaluate whether to reinstate passenger service between Chicago and Seattle, through southern Montana, "provided that such service will not negatively impact existing Amtrak routes."

"Southern Montana really needs passenger rail service, especially with the rising cost of gas and a growing number of seniors who need to travel across rural Montana," said Jim Green, president of the Montana Association of Railroad Passengers.  "We support any effort to get passenger trains rolling through the southern part of the state again."

In the 1970s Amtrak operated its North Coast Hiawatha line, which roughly paralleled Interstates 94 and 90, passing through Glendive, Miles City, Billings, Bozeman, Butte and Missoula.  Amtrak discontinued North Coast Hiawatha service in 1979.

Tester's amendment asks Amtrak to specifically explore the return of the old North Coast Hiawatha route, or segments of it.

"If we can get passenger train service through southern Montana back on track without jeopardizing the Empire Builder, what are we waiting for?" Tester said. "I want to make sure we have all the options on the table and this amendment does just that, while protecting service in northern Montana where train service is already critically important."

Just last week Amtrak said its Empire Builder line, which crosses through northern Montana along the Hi-Line, is its most popular overnight train.  More than 500,000 people rode the Empire Builder during the last fiscal year—an increase of 1.6% over the Fiscal Year 2006.

Tester's measure is an amendment to the Amtrak Reauthorization Bill.  Both he and Sen. Max Baucus are cosponsors of the reauthorization bill, which provides federal funding for passenger train service.