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Restoring Service to Southern Montana (NYT Article)

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Chris I

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An interesting read in the NYT today. Seems like an outside chance at some point in the next few years, but I would say the odds are low.

More info here, including a map of the potential routing:

It would appear that the line would run from Sandpoint, ID to Fargo, ND.

Anyone care to speculate on the options for service? This is what I came up with:

1. Tri-state service from Sandpoint to Fargo, with timed departures to link up with Empire Builder trips. Timed transfers would be problematic, given the reliability of the EB schedule.

2. Service that somewhat mirrors the Empire Builder between Portland/Seattle and Chicago. This would cost more, but would have the benefit of potentially offering a second daily option from each end. The current EB timetable doesn't really work for people traveling to/from Spokane/Sandpoint on the west end, and the Fargo, ND stop on the east end. This "Hiawatha" second daily could also be routed via Stampede pass, to serve additional cities in Washington state.

3. A single daily split train routing, with the Portland-Chicago train taking the southern route, and the Seattle-Chicago train taking the norther route. Timed transfer in Spokane and Fargo would be problematic, due to schedule reliability issues.
 
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Cal

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I doubt it will happen though Biden does like Amtrak, however adding a whole new long distance route? Especially when, just a few years back, they were on the right track (no pun intended) to get cut?

I personally would rather have any support and funds that come in, be directed in making our current long distance services what they used to be. Re-establish traditional dining on all routes would be a start. Re-adding back more checked baggage locations. And doing the best to cut down on delays and possibly increase speeds. I think that would be better as of now. Since I don't see the point of adding a new service when the current services could use upgrades.
 

Cal

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I also would love them to get new and modernized equipment to replace the superliners. But we all know that's not happening.
 

AM_ROAD

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I can't get past the pay wall, does it say anything about local state funding? Also has Montana Rail Link have any history with Amtrak?
 

Willbridge

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The Montana Rail Link did not exist when the NCH last ran in 1979. So no, Amtrak doesn't have any history in dealing with the MRL.
MRL has been friendly for mega-steam excursions. That's not the same as a commitment to run a schedule but at least proves that they are open-minded.

The Montana communities have been slowly and methodically building institutional arrangements and political support. They are better organized than communities were in the 2008-2009 "studies" of daily Sunset, restored Pioneer, and restored North Coast Hiawatha. To its credit the NYT article did convey some of that in addition to the compulsory nostalgia saccharine.

The article also ran today on Page One of the Denver Post.

Montana Rail

I should add that there is a renewed interest in the Pioneer route, including city officials and universities and colleges along the line. Some credit should go to the Rail Passenger Association's research on economic impacts.
 

Chris I

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MRL has been friendly for mega-steam excursions. That's not the same as a commitment to run a schedule but at least proves that they are open-minded.

The Montana communities have been slowly and methodically building institutional arrangements and political support. They are better organized than communities were in the 2008-2009 "studies" of daily Sunset, restored Pioneer, and restored North Coast Hiawatha. To its credit the NYT article did convey some of that in addition to the compulsory nostalgia saccharine.

The article also ran today on Page One of the Denver Post.

Montana Rail

I should add that there is a renewed interest in the Pioneer route, including city officials and universities and colleges along the line. Some credit should go to the Rail Passenger Association's research on economic impacts.
As a Portland native, I would rather see restoration of the Pioneer. It is the biggest geographical gap in the current Amtrak network, and would restore service to eastern Oregon, southern Idaho, and southern Wyoming (a state with no Amtrak service).
 

WICT106

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An interesting read in the NYT today. Seems like an outside chance at some point in the next few years, but I would say the odds are low.

More info here, including a map of the potential routing:

It would appear that the line would run from Sandpoint, ID to Fargo, ND.

Anyone care to speculate on the options for service? This is what I came up with:

1. Tri-state service from Sandpoint to Fargo, with timed departures to link up with Empire Builder trips. Timed transfers would be problematic, given the reliability of the EB schedule.

2. Service that somewhat mirrors the Empire Builder between Portland/Seattle and Chicago. This would cost more, but would have the benefit of potentially offering a second daily option from each end. The current EB timetable doesn't really work for people traveling to/from Spokane/Sandpoint on the west end, and the Fargo, ND stop on the east end. This "Hiawatha" second daily could also be routed via Stampede pass, to serve additional cities in Washington state.

3. A single daily split train routing, with the Portland-Chicago train taking the southern route, and the Seattle-Chicago train taking the norther route. Timed transfer in Spokane and Fargo would be problematic, due to schedule reliability issues.
I agree with you in regards to option # 2. Options 1 & 3 seem more susceptible to service-related issues.
 

railiner

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As Greyhound slowly winds down to total cessation of service, I would think that there would be renewed interest in having some kind of public transportation as an option in many of the affected communities around the country....
 

AM_ROAD

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Pretty generic. Although the $50 million start up cost was an interesting figure. Let's see if this gets an interest and if Montana wants to fork over the $$$$.
 

MikeM

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I wonder if maybe there is room here for some second tier type of long distance train, which would be more focused on coach service, perhaps simplified dining options and economy sleepers for a route like this? I do agree with other's comments above about the Pioneer and Desert Wind, both of which I think are major losses in the system that would benefit from being placed back in service.
 

jis

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Speaking of the Pioneer, when it was originally introduced as a Salt Lake City to Seattle train, it was introduced as a Coach and Cafe train. Sleepers were added later.
 

WWW

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Options to this:
Run the EB 3 or 4 days on the existing route - then the other 4 or 3 days on the alternate including those 4 cities
-OR-
Like the western service of the EB with splitting the train at Spokane one section going to Seattle the other Portland
doing this in the middle section - but this will not work well due to time distance scheduling the southern section
being longer and subject to speed restrictions on old rail (distance from Sandpoint to Fargo on the southern section
being greater than the existing northern half) and then cheap-o Amtrak not having the locomotives cars consist to
create this meshing with the existing trains 7 & 8 .
What am I thinking of - "Dream the Impossible - go fight some windmills" - maybe the first option maybe better -
but dropping the service for 3 or 4 days on the northern section will meet resistance from those cities.
 

railiner

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Another problem of splitting a train to travel different routes on alternate days, besides all of the negatives of a less-than-daily service, we all know about;
is that you might double, or at least add considerably to the cost of station and personnel, unless you plan no staffing at any stations....
 

Mailliw

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I wonder if maybe there is room here for some second tier type of long distance train, which would be more focused on coach service, perhaps simplified dining options and economy sleepers for a route like this? I do agree with other's comments above about the Pioneer and Desert Wind, both of which I think are major losses in the system that would benefit from being placed back in service.
There's the Palmetto; it's a long distance train, but it's on a daytime schedule so no sleepers. I think "economy" sleeping cars (roomettes or sections plus an ADA bedroom) are a good idea. Especially if Amtrak wants use use single level cars for Western LDs; in that case a new sleeper car order should consist of a mix of types (economy, all bedroom, & mixed.)
 

MikefromCrete

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As a Portland native, I would rather see restoration of the Pioneer. It is the biggest geographical gap in the current Amtrak network, and would restore service to eastern Oregon, southern Idaho, and southern Wyoming (a state with no Amtrak service).
The train under consideration would be financially backed by Montana. It would under the best circumstances connect with the EB on both ends. It would probably be coaches and a cafe car. Anything else would be wild speculation. The issue of a revived Pioneer has nothing to do with the proposed Montana train.
 

Siegmund

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There is a lot of organizational effort going in to this - though it is, so far, still at a stage where it is spearheaded by one or two individuals in Missoula, and just gaining a measure of cooperation from the other cities involved. (I would not be surprised to see the northern tier counties join the Passenger Rail Authority too, so that advocacy for the Builder route can come under the same umbrella.)

Nobody has yet said anything about where the money will come from. Can pretty much guarantee that state funding is not going to get 30 seconds of consideration in Helena for the next 4 years. We have just elected a mini-Trump as governor and are "looking forward to" tax cuts for the rich, deep budget cuts for the university, and a repeal of our mask mandate this legislative session.

I would certainly *hope* this would be in the context of a second Chicago-Seattle frequency. There are already separate pushes for additional Chicago-Minneapolis and Spokane-Seattle service.The Amtrak study included consideration of Missoula-Billings daytime service (state supported) and for a bizarre slow Williston-southern Montana-Sandpoint loop route - which felt like "we're putting an Alternative B into our plan because we aren't allowed to say there is only one alternative in our proposal" not a serious suggestion.
However, note that Sandpoint to Glendive is already 772 rail miles (and was run in between 15 and 16 hours fifty years ago.) So a Palmetto-ette is conceivably a possibility, or would be if we had a senator with Byrd-like influence on Amtrak.

I do not know if there is a comparable effort to restore service to southern North Dakota. If there isn't, there may be an opportunity for some out of the box thinking. Seattle-Billings-Casper-Denver-Chicago? But so far all the discussion has remained focused on the old NCH route.
 

20th Century Rider

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Miracles happen when reps get together in WAS to support pet projects... in this case it's a good cause serving communities needing both transportation for themselves, and a method of bringing in tourists to build the economy!

trains-350x199.jpg



 

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Mark Meyer

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Options to this:
Run the EB 3 or 4 days on the existing route - then the other 4 or 3 days on the alternate including those 4 cities
-OR-
Like the western service of the EB with splitting the train at Spokane one section going to Seattle the other Portland
One way you can spot someone who is anti-passenger train is when they suggest taking part of an existing service to provide "service" on another route. Excluding current COVID service reductions, the current Amtrak system is already just a skeleton service. Reducing service to three or four times a week would simply make the Empire Builder less viable.....and remember, the Empire Builder has been the most-ridden long distance train through most of the 2000s and 2010s, so it's not like it needs to be negatively tampered with. Also, when daily, the Empire Builder at Seattle and Portland has the shortest turnaround time of equipment of any Amtrak long distance train (about 6.5 hours). The longer running time of a train through Southern Montana could not be done by simply stealing Empire Builder equipment as this same-day turn would not be possible and additional equipment (that Amtrak never seems to have) would be required.
 

Mark Meyer

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Pretty generic. Although the $50 million start up cost was an interesting figure. Let's see if this gets an interest and if Montana wants to fork over the $$$$.
Yeah, it was a pretty interesting figure, since the 2009 price tag for a reinstated North Coast Hiawatha in an Amtrak study was over $1 billion. And that didn't include nearly enough for stations. And it's really hard to put any price tag on it when the rail authority hasn't even specified the exact route they initially want to advocate for.
 

WWW

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Miracles happen when reps get together in WAS to support pet projects... in this case it's a good cause serving communities needing both transportation for themselves, and a method of bringing in tourists to build the economy!

View attachment 20466



Thanks for the map/image - A picture is worth a great deal more than a bunch of words !
 
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Siegmund

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One way you can spot someone who is anti-passenger train is when they suggest taking part of an existing service to provide "service" on another route. Excluding current COVID service reductions, the current Amtrak system is already just a skeleton service. Reducing service to three or four times a week would simply make the Empire Builder less viable.....
I tend to agree with all of that part. (Amtrak did try running them on alternate days in 1978 and 1979. It would be interesting to see how much the Builder's ridership was hurt by that, vs. the daily Builder and triweekly NCH before that.) A 4x/wk California Zephyr and 3x/wk Pioneer was certainly ugly.

Also, when daily, the Empire Builder at Seattle and Portland has the shortest turnaround time of equipment of any Amtrak long distance train (about 6.5 hours). The longer running time of a train through Southern Montana could not be done by simply stealing Empire Builder equipment as this same-day turn would not be possible and additional equipment (that Amtrak never seems to have) would be required.
This is only a problem if you hold the Chicago departure time fixed. Note that during much of the time that both trains ran, the NCH left Chicago 3 or 4 hours before the Builder and got to Spokane 1 or 2 hours before. I would hope for a new service that either did the same thing, or ran one train overnight from Chicago to Minneapolis.

There is much fuss made of the NCH route being slower -- but Fargo to Spokane was only between 1 and 1½ hours slower, both pre-Amtrak and in 1979, than the Builder.

A lot depends on the quality of track in North Dakota. MRL has maintained the ex-NP in Montana to a very high standard and runs freight at 60 in many places - can probably run passenger at 79 without doing much besides putting up the speed limit signs.
 
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