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Rail Passengers Association assesses economic impact of restoring passenger rail to North Dakota, Montana

Published: Oct. 14, 2021 at 7:06 PM CDT
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BISMARCK, N.D. (KFYR) - Seventeen counties in North Dakota and Montana have signed a letter of support for a project that seeks to restore Amtrak passenger rail service across the old North Coast Hiawatha route. Now the Rail Passengers Association is studying the economic impacts of such a feat.

Passengers traveled by rail through southern Montana and North Dakota in the 1970′s. Today, there’s a passenger rail line further north.

“The assumption is that trains are for Boston, or Philadelphia, or places like that. Not so. North Dakota is an enormous beneficiary of an existing route called the Empire Builder,” said Rail Passengers Association president and CEO Jim Mathews.

The Rail Passengers Association re-examined the economic impact of restoring the Southern tier, the North Coast Hiawatha.

“We look at 500 some odd destinations in the Amtrak system, and what we have found is that smaller communities are always outsized users of passenger rail because they have fewer options,” added Mathews.

The economic impact study reports that once the restored route reaches a steady state of operation, as many as 426,000 people would ride the train annually. The route could generate $271 million in economic benefits to the seven states it traverses.

The proposed route would dip through the southern part of Montana, through North Dakota, potentially making a stop in Mandan or Bismarck, and hook up with the Empire Builder in Fargo.

“From the time that Amtrak did their study [in 2009], we went back and looked at all the counties and updated the populations and so forth. Tremendous growth along this corridor,” said Mathews.

Phase one of the study looked at the size of the counties and population in comparison to similar rural Amtrak routes. Future studies will use other factors like schedules and timetables, equipment purchases, and capital spending for a more nuanced evaluation.

Big Sky Rail Authority officials hope to use federal infrastructure funding to restore the route.

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