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Big Sky rail authority briefed on BNSF-Amtrak relationship, Lake Pend Oreille bridge investment

BNSF Engine
Posted at 2:48 PM, Mar 11, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-11 16:48:11-05

MISSOULA - While several host railroads along the Gulf Coast resist efforts to expand passenger rail, Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) said it maintains a good working relationship with Amtrak and is poised to invest millions of dollars in new infrastructure.

BNSF officials met with the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority this week to discuss their $3.5 billion capital plan for 2022, and the potential benefits of the recently passed Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

Jim Tylick, the assistant vice president of passenger operations for BNSF, said his company is well-positioned to advance the goals of the bill.

“It unlocks new opportunities for passenger rail,” Tylick said. “We look forward to collaborating with our public partners to identify projects that benefit the rail industry. We’re excited to continue to promote rail. Whether that’s taking trucks off the highway or people off the highway, as it may be for passenger trains, it’s exciting times as we think about the infrastructure bill.”

BNSF operates around 32,000 route miles in 28 states and employs 35,000 people. It owns and operates most of the track in Montana, including the Empire Builder route. It also owns the old North Coast Hiawatha route, which Montana rail advocates are looking to restore.

“We look forward to engaging with this group as it explores possibilities on the passenger rail side,” said Tylick.

When Amtrak was created in the 1970s, it resulted in the Grand Bargain. It relieved the nation’s freight carriers from their common obligation to run and operate passenger trains. In exchange, Amtrak was given the legal right to access the host railroad’s lines.

But now, as Amtrak looks to restore Gulf service, its right to access that railroad is in dispute. The issue has put Amtrak at odds with host railroads CSX and Norfolk Southern. But in the Pacific Northwest, BNSF and Amtrak have a strong partnership, company officials said.

“We have a great working relationship with Amtrak,” Tylick said. “We really do value that relationship.”

This year, BNSF plans to invest $3.5 billion into capital improvements, with the bulk of it going to infrastructure. A portion will go to renew old equipment and some to expand capacity, including a choke point at Lake Pend Oreille in Sand Point, Idaho.

While the project will benefit BNSF’s freight operations, it will also benefit passenger rail, including the Empire Builder and the North Coast Hiawatha, if it were restored.

“When there’s a service interruption, whether it’s caused by an avalanche in Glacier Park or something else and traffic has to halt for an extended period of time and backs up, the largest choke point on that northern corridor is right there at Sand Point,” said Matt Jones, a spokesman for BNSF.

“Trains have to wait to go across that bridge. That impacts Amtrak. The investment in that bridge will have a direct benefit to Amtrak. All the traffic that operates on that corridor benefits from that investment.”