Posts Tagged ‘Amtrak’s North Coast Hiawatha’

Montana Department Joins Big Sky Authority

July 20, 2022

The Montana Department of Transportation has joined an agency seeking Amtrak service to southern Montana.

The agency joined the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority as an ex officio member. Other ex officio members of the Authority include BNSF and Amtrak.

Eighteen Montana counties also have joined. The proposed service would use the former rout eof the Chicago-Seattle North Coast Hiawatha, which was discontinued in October 1979 during an Amtrak route restructuring.

BNSF Joins Big Sky Authority

May 16, 2022

The group seeking to restore Amtrak service to lower Montana has a new member.

BNSF has joined the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority, which wants to restore rail passenger service to three of Montana’s four largest cities.

The railroad, which would host the proposed service, will be an ex officio member of the authority as is Amtrak.

Representing BNSF at authority meetings will be Jim Tylick, the railroad’s assistant vice president of passenger operations.

The proposed route last hosted Amtrak’s North Coast Hiawatha in early October 1979. The Chicago-Seattle train was discontinued during a massive Amtrak route restructuring prompted by congressional budget cuts of Amtrak funding.

The authority’s board of directors has members from 17 Montana counties.

FRA Urged to Create Rail Study Group

January 22, 2022

A bipartisan group of U.S. senators has asked the Federal Railroad Administration to establish a group to study potential intercity rail passenger service to the Pacific Northwest.

In particular, the group would consider the establishment of service along the route once used by Amtrak’s North Coast Hiawatha between Chicago and Seattle.

That train, which was discontinued in early October 1979 as part of an Amtrak route restructuring prompted by a reduction in the passenger carrier’s federal aid, used a former Northern Pacific route through southern Montana and central North Dakota.

The proposed Greater Northwest Working Group would be given a mandate to “expedite” the establishment of service within the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

The group would review existing Amtrak long-distance service, explore options to restore additional routes, and find ways for Amtrak to work with local organizations.

Already a Montana group, the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority, is working to restore rail passenger service to the former North Coast Hiawatha route.

The authority is comprised of several counties that lie along the route.

The route once used by the North Coast Hiawatha is operated in much of Montana by Montana Rail Link, which leases track from BNSF.

BNSF owns the rest of the former North Coast Hiawatha route and recently announced it would take track back from Montana Rail Link, effectively putting the regional carrier out of business.

It is not clear how BNSF’s plans might affect efforts to restore rail passenger service. The plan still needs to win approval of the U.S. Surface Transportation Board and it is unclear when BNSF will seek that.

Montana Passenger Group Names President

January 25, 2021

The newly formed Montana Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority has named Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier as its first president.

Strohmaier has played a key role in getting the group organized. To date it has held two meetings.

At its most recent meeting, Authority members heard a report that two more counties may join the group, which would give it 14 members.

Also at that meeting, members heard from Amtrak’s director for governmental affairs for the West, Rob Eaton.

During his presentation, Eaton said Amtrak would help the Authority work with potential host railroads Montana Rail Link and BNSF.

The Authority is seeking to restore inercity rail passenger service in southern Montain over a route once served by Amtrak’s North Coast Hiawatha until early October 1979 when it was discontinued in a route restructuring.

Montana Rail Agency Has 12 Member Counties

November 27, 2020

The agency seeking a return of Amtrak service to southern Montana now has 12 counties as members.

The Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority could hold its first meeting next July at which it will appoint officers and begin strategic planning.

Half of the 12 counties that comprise the Authority are located along the route of Amtrak’s former North Coast Hiawatha, which operated between Chicago and Seattle until being discontinued in early October 1979.

The agency needed 10 member counties to qualify as a government entity under Montana law.

Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier said the agency will work with Montana State University’s local government center.

Less Than Daily Service: A Primmer

October 16, 2020

It might be hard to believe today but rail passenger advocates once stood aside as a railroad shifted the frequency of operation of a long-distance passenger train from daily to tri-weekly.

In the late 1960s Southern Pacific wanted to discontinue its daily Sunset Limited between Los Angeles and New Orleans, citing losses high financial losses due to ridership having fallen by half compared to the early 1950s and revenue having fallen even more.

To reduce costs, SP removed sleeping cars and full-service dining, replacing the latter with an automat car containing vending machines.

That move was heavily criticized by Interstate Commerce Commission examiner John S. Messer and also drew fire from local government officials along the route and the then-new National Association of Railroad Passengers.

Then something remarkable happened. NARP agreed to refrain from criticizing SP if the railroad reinstated dining cars and sleepers.

In return NARP agreed not to protest moving the train to tri-weekly operation.

On the day that Amtrak began in 1971, it inhered tri-weekly Southern Pacific Nos. 1 and 2.

Amtrak will celebrate its 50th birthday next May and the Sunset Limited has never operated on a daily schedule under Amtrak auspices.

Of late Amtrak has been acting much like SP once did by reducing the frequency of nearly all of its long-distance trains to tri-weekly.

Although it has not eliminated sleeping cars, Amtrak has downgraded its dining service by removing from most trains freshly prepared meals onboard with a more limited menu of food prepared off the train.

Amtrak has sought to frame the move to tri-weekly service as temporary and linked it to steep ridership and revenue declines prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic. It expects ridership to be only half in the federal fiscal year 2021 of what it was in 2019.

Less than daily operation of passenger trains is not a new concept although Amtrak has never operated virtually its entire long-distance network in that manner.

Although not the norm, less than daily service existed in the pre-Amtrak era.

After Western Pacific discontinued its leg of the California Zephyr in March 1968, there continued to be a tri-weekly “California Service” operating over much of the route of today’s Amtrak California Zephyr.

SP operated what is today’s Coast Starlight tri-weekly between Oakland, California, and Seattle.

Examine various issues of the Official Guide of the Railways in the late 1960s and you’ll find several trains that operated weekly, only on weekends, tri-weekly or only during a certain season of the year.

There once were trains that operated every other day or every third day, including a trio of Chicago-Florida Streamliners, the City of Miami, South Wind and Dixie Flager.

The trains were scheduled so there was a daily departure from Chicago every day, albeit on different routes.

The City of Miami and South Wind survived until the coming of Amtrak by which time they had been operating every other day since the 1950s.

Tri-weekly trains have been fixtures at various times in Amtrak’s history. It did not begin operating the Coast Starlight or San Francisco Zephyr (later renamed California Zephyr) daily over the length of their routes until 1973.

The Chicago-Seattle North Coast Hiawatha began life in June 1971 as a tri-weekly train between Minneapolis and Spokane, Washington. It reached Chicago and Seattle combined with the daily Empire Builder.

At various times the North Coast Hi alternated between daily and tri-weekly operation before being discontinued in early October 1979.

The Inter-American, the forerunner of the Texas Eagle, began in January 1973, as a tri-weekly train between Fort Worth and Laredo, Texas.

It later was later extended north to St. Louis and eventually to Chicago. At various times the Inter-American operated tri-weekly south of St. Louise.

And then there is the Cardinal. The subject of discontinuance efforts in the late 1970s, the Cardinal survived largely because of the influence of West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd.

When talk of discontinuing the Cardinal picked up again in 1981, Amtrak President Alan Boyd suggested keeping the train as a tri-weekly run between Chicago and Cincinnati named the Midwestener.

Instead the Amtrak board of directors voted in September 1981 to end the Cardinal.

It was revived in January 1982 via a rider placed in an appropriations bill by Indiana Congressman Adam Benjamin. It has operated tri-weekly ever since.

Less than daily service was common in the airline industry even before the pandemic.

Southwest Airlines served some markets only on weekends. Low cost carriers Spirit, Allegiant and Frontier don’t fly every route every day.

Legacy carriers Delta, United and American have flights that don’t operate on certain days when travel demand is less, typically early in the week.

Nonetheless, rail passengers supporters have advocated strenuously against Amtrak’s tri-weekly plan with Trains magazine passenger correspondent Bob Johnston panning it in an article headlined “How to kill a network” in the September 2020 issue.

East Coat-based passenger train advocate David Peter Alan argued in a Progressive Railway essay headlined “farewell, long-distance trains?” that Amtrak is waging war on its passengers by imposing service cuts so severe that the national network as its been known will cease to exist.

The Rail Passengers Association, formerly known as NARP, called Amtrak’s plans disappointing and misguided, saying Amtrak might be setting itself up for failure.

The primary argument made by passenger advocates against tri-weekly service is Amtrak tried it once and failed to save as much money as it claimed it would.

Advocates are fond of citing a Government Accountability Office report on the 1995 cutback to less than daily service on several routes, most of them in the West and South.

The GAO found that passengers did not adjust their travel plans as Amtrak expected and less than daily service led to “less efficient usage of equipment and other unforeseen problems.”

Amtrak President George Warrington told the Senate Commerce Committee in 2000 that Amtrak lost more passenger revenue than it was able to recoup in saved expenses due to the fixed cost nature of the operation.”

Amtrak eventually restored all of those trains to daily but also eliminated the Pioneer between Salt Lake City and Seattle and Desert Wind between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles.

Amtrak has published a set of criteria that it said will guide the return to daily service.

Whether any or even all of the trains can meet those criteria remains to be seen.

Political pressure might force Amtrak to reinstate daily operation or there may develop a situation in which some trains resume daily operation and others do not.

Tri-weekly service may not be an ideal business practice, yet some service is better than no service. If you don’t believe that, ask those who live in cities and regions that have no intercity rail passenger service.

Ultimately, the question of how often Amtrak’s long-distance trains operate or even whether they will operate at all is a political one that will be “resolved” by the political process and how Amtrak management responds to it.

There are many unknowns that will influence how that plays out including how the travel market rebounds from the COVID-19 pandemic that has dramatically cut the use of public transit, idled cruise ships and jet airliners, and led to an unprecedented shrinking of the world’s airline route network.

Montana Rail Symposium Set for Sept. 17

September 11, 2020

Supporters of restoring Amtrak service to southern Montana plan to hold a virtual event on Sept. 17 to drum up support.

The Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority plans an online symposium to be called the Montana Passenger Rail Summit.

The event will be held between 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Speakers will discuss efforts to preserve Empire Builder service across the northern tier of the state as well as revive service on a route last served by Amtrak in 1979.

That service involved the Chicago-Seattle North Coast Hiawatha, which was discontinued during an Amtrak route restructuring .

Nine Montana counties have joined the Big Sky agency.

An announcement on the agency’s website said that participants in the symposium will include elected officials, business leaders, students, passenger rail experts, environmental organizations, and transportation enthusiasts.

They will discuss the creation of the Big Sky agency, hear about the economic benefits of rail passenger service and discuss what needs to be done to restore Amtrak service to southern Montana.

Montana County Names Member of Agency

August 24, 2020

Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier has been named a member of the Big Sky Rail Passenger Rail Authority.

Strohmaier has been instrumental in leading the efforts to create the agency, which is overseeing efforts to restore Amtrak service to southern Montana.

Five counties have ratified membership on the commission with six others having indicated their intention to join. Each county will appoint one member to the commission.

The region has been without intercity rail passenger service since Amtrak’s North Coast Hiawatha was discontinued in 1979.

2nd Montana County Signs Onto Agency

August 1, 2020

County commissioners in Missoula, Montana, have approved a resolution to form the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority.

Earlier this week commissioners of Gallatin County also approved the resolution.

The approval of two counties of a resolution is needed under state law for the agency to become official.

The authority plans to work to restore Amtrak service to southern Montana.

The region last had intercity rail passenger service in early October 1979 when Amtrak’s Chicago-Seattle North Coast Hiawatha was discontinued.

The drive to create the authority was initiated a year ago by Missoula County.

Among the cities that are on the proposed route are Billings, Bozeman and Missoula.

The authority will also explore operating the train through Helena.

Officials say as many as 10 additional counties might join the authority, which plans to hold a “rail summit” in Missoula in September to work out details about how the authority will be set up.

Montana’s only intercity rail service is Amtrak’s Chicago-Seattle/Portland Empire Builder, which operates across the northern tier of the state.

1st Montana County Formally Joins Big Sky Agency

July 29, 2020

Gallatin County in Montana has formally agreed to the membership terms of the new Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority.

That makes it the first formal member of the agency with Missoula County expected to join later this week.

Nine other Montana counties have express interest in joining the authority, which was formed to work toward the resumption of Amtrak service to the southern tier of the state.

Currently the only Amtrak service in Montana is the Empire Builder in the northern part of the state.

The southern tier has been without intercity rail passenger service since the Chicago-Seattle North Coast Hiawatha was discontinued in early October 1979.