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More Counties On Board For Southern Passenger Rail, Service Along Hi-Line Still Reduced

On the snow-covered platform at Havre, Montana.
On the snow-covered platform at Havre, Montana.

As two more Montana counties move closer to joining a rail authority in an effort to create passenger service for the southern half of the state, Montana’s Democratic Senator is trying to get more federal funding that would bring back daily service for the Hi Line.

Lewis and Clark County Commissioners voted this week to hold a public hearing on joining the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority, which aims to add a rail line that would connect Wibaux County to Missoula and beyond. Carbon County plans to hold a public hearing next week before voting on a resolution.

Around a dozen counties in December officially formed the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority, which serves as a governing body that can pull in funding and be the primary point of contact for Amtrak, state and federal government.

Sen. Jon Tester Thursday on a press call said he appreciated the efforts of the rail authority to establish a southern passenger line.

“The concern I have is that I don’t want to take away one route and do another so I want it to be an added thing," Tester said.

In October, following massive passenger declines and revenue losses due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Amtrak reduced daily service to three days a week for the Empire Builder, which runs along Montana’s Hi-Line.

In 2019, over 120,000 Empire passengers boarded or disembarked in 12 Montana communities.

“Montana’s a huge state. Long distance rail is really important. And I think, not unlike the postal service, if you reduce services, then you start a downward trend that is irreversible," Tester said.

Tester this week introduced legislation in U.S. Congress that would provide nearly $166 million worth of grants for Amtrak to reinstate furloughed employees and reverse cuts to long distance service across the country.

Amtrak’s President and CEO in October said the government subsidized rail service had almost run out of the $1 billion allocated in the CARES Act and that Amtrak expected a nearly $250 million cash burn each month without more financial support.

The rail service last fall asked for $10 billion in federal funding to recover from revenue losses and maintain operations for Financial Year 2021.

The most recent federal COVID relief package from December allocated $1 billion for Amtrak.

Tester said there’s light at the end of the pandemic tunnel with the COVID-19 vaccine and he expects Amtrak’s revenues to pick up as more people travel.

Copyright 2021 Yellowstone Public Radio

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