Montana Department of Transportation

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Rail in Montana

Overview

MDT has limited interaction with railroads operating within the state. Generally, MDT’s involvement with rail and rail issues includes:

  • Improvements to highway rail grade crossings.
  • Maintaining an inventory of all public rail/road crossings and prioritization improvements.
  • Managing the Montana Essential Freight Rail Loan Program for rail construction and rehabilitation projects on light density rail lines or related infrastructure.
  • Negotiations with rail owners for right-of-way for construction of state roadway improvements near or across rail lines.
  • Limited rail planning activities such as rail grade separation study, Montana Freight Plan, and Montana Rail Plan.
  • Continual support for the preservation of existing passenger rail service, Amtrak’s Empire Builder, in state.
  • Requests for information (oil & coal trains, Amtrak, rail abandonment).
  • Owns the track between Moccasin and Geraldine and lease to Central Montana Railroad.
  • Participate in the Great Northern Corridor Coalition. MDT applied for and received grants on behalf of stakeholders for a two-phase study for the Great Northern Corridor.

MDT has no jurisdiction over the railroads in Montana or operates any of the rail lines.

Montana Rail Freight Facts

  • There are more than 3,300 miles of rail run by 12 companies. BNSF operates 59% of these rail miles; Montana Rail Link operates 25%.
  • By tonnage, rail carries the most freight followed closely by trucks and pipeline.
  • By value, trucks carry nearly 50% of freight, followed by pipeline at 34% and rail at 8%.
  • Rail carries 48% of freight by weight that originates within the state.
  • In 2015, approximately 50% of rail freight carried within and through the state by BNSF was coal. Farm products made up 20%. Petroleum products were 8%.

Montana Passenger Rail Facts

  • Amtrak’s Empire Builder runs along the High Line and is an essential passenger transportation service for people traveling both in and through the state.
  • There are 12 Amtrak stations. The Whitefish location accounts for approximately 45% of the boardings and alightings.
  • Amtrak provides positive impacts to the state’s economy.
  • In 2008, Congress directed Amtrak to examine the possibility of reinstating passenger rail service on the North Coast Hiawatha route. Amtrak estimated the capital and up-front costs of the NCH route to exceed $1 billion, annual operating cost would exceed $74 million, resulting in a $31 million annual operating loss.
  • In 2010, Amtrak completed an analysis of the restoration of southern route passenger rail from Sandpoint, ID and Williston, ND and a more detailed analysis between Billings and Missoula.