MISSOULA — If passenger rail service returns to Montana's "Southern Route" in the coming years, trains will have to co-exist with lines already busy with freight traffic.
During last week's Montana Passenger Rail Summit, one of the most frequently-asked was how that works.
Stop and watch the mainline tracks and you'll quickly see how many Montana Rail Link and Burlington Northern Santa Fe trains are already passing through.
So logically, one must wonder where would passenger trains fit if they return to the "Southern Route". Turns out the Big Sky Rail Authority already has a partner.
“In order to address passenger rail, we work with Amtrak. Amtrak is the federal authority. Then you move forward, Rail Link will work with Amtrak when it comes to determining rail times with BNSF, but their job, for the most part, is to -- or they viewed their main function is doing freight service," said Montana State Representative Andrea Olsen (D-MT).
That's a structure established when the government took over passenger rail service from the historic carriers in 1971.
“The government will take this responsibility off your hands. And in exchange for that, the Amtrak will have priority dispatch over your rail. And will pay the lowest possible price per mile for access," explained Rail Passengers Association President and CEO Jim Matthews. "That’s kind of the terms of the ‘Grand Bargain’.
Of course, a lot has happened since that "bargain" was crafted. Matthews told the Rail Summit audience, there has been some talk of the arrangement being reviewed.
But he says passenger rail advocates have had good success working with "cooperative carriers" like BNSF, because of the mutual benefit.
"Improves the access to the rail. Makes it possible to get the slots that we need to run the trains," Matthews said. "But also improves the overall economy and improves by extension the economic conditions, the preconditions that the freight railroad industry needs to continue to thrive and grow.”
Click here to learn more about the Big Sky Rail Authority and the most recent meeting.