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Train derailment brings back talk of passenger rail route in southern Montana

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Posted at 4:01 PM, Jun 28, 2023
and last updated 2023-06-29 10:24:27-04

Yellowstone County has pushed back against a passenger rail route in southern Montana for months, and now following the recent derailment, officials say their opposition has been reaffirmed.

County Commissioner John Ostlund said Wednesday that the primary reason for not wanting passenger rail is the cost, but now there has been a safety component added to the mix after last week's derailment near Reed Point.

"Spending billions to make millions doesn't seem like a good investment," Ostlund told MTN News. "In 1890, it was the best way to cross the country. In 2023, it's the slowest way to cross the country."

Ostlund argues that the lack of efficiency would not benefit Montanans and that creating passenger rail infrastructure in the state would be expensive. He also worried that the additional infrastructure could cause harmful delays in a state that relies heavily on transporting commerce in and out of the state lines.

"Rail is much different than highways, where you have a lot of opportunities to reroute it," Ostlund said. "If you have a bridge failure in the railroad, then you have to go down to Wyoming or up to the Hi-Line. If those routes aren't critically ready for passenger rail at a huge expense, then you'll have another problem to deal with."

Ostlund did recognize the importance of freight in Montana and said that the current infrastructure does need to be improved, especially following the most recent derailment.

"Everything that comes in and out of Montana goes on trains, so it is super important that we make sure the infrastructure is steady," Ostlund said. "That (derailment) was kind of a wake-up call for everybody. I think the infrastructure is vulnerable all across the United States."

Train Derailment

Although Yellowstone County is a major holdout for a southern passenger rail line, others are still pushing for it. Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority Chairman Dave Strohmaier of Missoula said that the additional rail line would be a huge economic benefit for the entire state.

"Here in Montana, we need to look no further than the Hi-Line to see the benefits of passenger rail," Strohmaier said. "In some of those more rural communities, it's a lifeline because they depend on passenger rail for transportation."

Strohmaier also said that safety precautions are always considered when discussing passenger rail, and the recent derailment doesn't change anything.

"Whether it's freight operations or passenger rail operations, we want to see the investments to make sure we have safe operations out there," Strohmaier said.

And Stromaier said that infrastructure should always be monitored closely, arguing that highways and interstates are improved all the time.

"We are investing in our highways and our streets because we think that's important," Strohmaier said. "So, let's not kid ourselves to hold passenger rail to a different standard."

Still, Ostlund said the proposed new line is not worth the cost of maintaining another mode of transportation.

"If an interstate or highway is closed, there are easy and safe frontage road options," Ostlund said. "Rails are not like that, and I think adding another line would cause serious delays."