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Kristen Daum, Published October 26 2009

Study looks at reviving Amtrak line

Thirty years ago this month, an Amtrak route servicing Minnesota and southern North Dakota was shut down. Now, a new government study raises the possibility of reviving it.

North Dakota officials say they’d like to see the North Coast Hiawatha route come back, though there’s a potentially billion-dollar obstacle that, for now, makes it a daunting task.

And even if that hurdle is passed, active train service would still be years away.

The feasibility study was mandated by Congress last year at the request of Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., to determine the costs and benefits of eventually reinstating the route.

The North Coast Hiawatha route operated during the 1970s as an alternative to the Empire Builder – both lines travelled from Chicago to Seattle with stops in Minnesota and North Dakota.

The Empire Builder still operates with service through northern North Dakota, after stopping in Fargo.

According to the 50-page study:

The North Coast Hiawatha route would pass through Fargo and continue straight west with possible stops in Valley City, Jamestown, Bismarck, Mandan and Dickinson. From there, the route would continue through southern Montana, northern Idaho and on to Seattle.

The route would not affect Minnesota’s Amtrak stops since it would travel the same tracks as the Empire Builder.

Projections estimate the North Coast Hiawatha would serve nearly 360,000 passengers annually, even drawing in a small percentage of Empire Builder passengers.

But like Amtrak, the route would operate on an annual loss, estimated at $31 million. Nationally, the average income for Amtrak’s long-distance routes is about half of what it costs to run them.

The start-up costs for construction, railroad upgrades and equipment could amount to more than $1 billion to reinstate service along the North Coast Hiawatha, according to the Amtrak study.

That figure is “subject to significant uncertainty,” but the money would likely come from the federal government, unless state and local governments entered into cost-sharing agreements with Amtrak.

North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan said the current cost estimates make the project “prohibitive,” although the expanded service would be beneficial to the state.

“It’s a place to begin looking at what, in the long-term, might be able to happen to give us additional Amtrak service, but under today’s numbers, that’s not likely to happen,” Dorgan said.

The route’s initial advocate, Tester, agreed.

“We have to consider whether such a hefty estimated price tag makes sense in these tough economic times,” the Montana senator said in a statement.

Amtrak officials met with North Dakota government and transportation officials in August to discuss the study. Their reaction also was positive yet hesitant.

“It’d be great to have it; it would be a great tool to help get across North Dakota to different parts of the country,” said Lance Gaebe, Gov. John Hoeven’s deputy chief of staff. “But it seems like it’s so hard to create new things.”

North Dakota Department of Transportation officials plan to analyze the Amtrak study within the next couple weeks.

Gaebe said an effort such as this would “take a champion” to continue advocating for it.

“It’d be really interesting and great if it would happen, but it looks like it’s going to take a lot of work on somebody’s behalf,” he said.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Kristen Daum at (701) 241-5541