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Southern N.D. Amtrak route revival a tough sell

BISMARCK -- The last Amtrak passenger train pulled out of Bismarck 30 years ago when the railroad cut the southern route of its Chicago and Seattle line.

Empire Builder route
The route of Amtrak's Empire Builder. (Forum News Service)

BISMARCK -- The last Amtrak passenger train pulled out of Bismarck 30 years ago when the railroad cut the southern route of its Chicago and Seattle line.

Amtrak recently released feasibility studies for some of its defunct routes, including the North Coast Hiawatha route that served the southern half of the state until 1979. The good news is that the line would be more profitable compared to most of the routes on the money-losing, federally funded rail system. The bad news is that restoring service would come with a billion-dollar price tag, making it a tough sell politically.

"I would love to see us have two passenger lines in North Dakota," said Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., who worked with Sen. Jon Tester, Montana, to push for the feasibility study. "The fact that Amtrak runs full trains though the state (on the Empire Builder route) demonstrates that there's interest."

But the investment in tracks, stations, personnel and equipment necessary to restore service would be a formidable obstacle while "we've had to fight a battle to keep the service we have," Dorgan said.

The North Coast Hiawatha ran from 1971 to 1979, passing through Fargo, Valley City, Jamestown, Bismarck, Mandan and Dickinson, N.D., and the southern half of Montana on its way to the population hubs of Seattle and Chicago. Amtrak's Empire Builder route runs through the state between Fargo and Williston.


A law passed last year required Amtrak to study expanded service to certain regions. The report on the North Coast Hiawatha line, released Oct. 16, reached mixed conclusions:

- Projected ridership would be 359,800 passengers a year, including 65,800 that would likely be taken from the Empire Builder.

- The farebox recovery of the route, meaning the amount of operating costs covered by revenue, would be 58 percent, giving it a $31.1 But the average recovery rate for Amtrak routes is 51.8 percent, meaning the route would be comparatively profitable.

- The route would provide economic benefits in the service areas through increased jobs and visitors, and would provide more transportation options where the current ones are few and expensive.

- The cost of track and signal improvements, locomotives, cars and other equipment would require $1.04 billion capital investment.

The federal stimulus bill includes $8 billion to improve intercity train service, but restoring the Hiawatha route would require finding other money from Washington, D.C., or the states it serves. Amtrak's study does not argue for or against restoration, and any step toward renewed service would have to come from the states.

The price tag would make the argument "very difficult," Dorgan said, especially when "there are people who believe we should not be subsidizing Amtrak at all."

William Thoms, a research fellow at the Upper Great Plains Transportation Institute at North Dakota State University, put the chances of restored service as more than difficult.


"Man will step on Mars before someone steps off of a train in Bismarck," Thoms said.

The Hiawatha route is complicated by the existing service from the Empire Builder, which would lose some riders to a southern route. There also is the problem of adding service to a sparsely populated area while other parts of the country lack it completely.

A version of the Pioneer route connecting Denver, Salt Lake City and Seattle could be a more likely candidate for restoration if Amtrak advocates are afraid of doubling up its services in the northern corridor.

The arguments against the Hiawatha line are not airtight, said Ross Capon, president of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, an advocacy group. He said the report was "pretty positive."

"The transportation system in general loses money," Capon said. The Hiawatha could provide an environmentally friendly transportation link in an area where air and bus service has been scarce or decreasing. "The incentive is the fact that other forms of transportation have been dying on the vine," he said.

Marc Halvorson, North Dakota legislative director for the United Transportation Union, remembers the old line and said the route would be a tremendous service to the citizens of North Dakota.

"With a billion dollars in the general fund, it would be nice to have some support from the state," he said.

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