Opinion: The North Coast Hiawatha Restoration Study: Its many flaws addressed

Synopsis of the North Coast Hiawatha Restoration study

--done by the Rail Passengers Assocation for the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority

by Mark Meyer

The study is available at the BSPRA website at:

https://static1.squarespace.com/static/601b3c34aabc2212d364dd39/t/6168ad0dcaac9b26e34c5663/1634250007612/North+Coast+Hiawatha+Restoration.pdf

The study is highly flawed: RPA’s North Coast Hiawatha route study proudly touts a projection of handling 426,000 passengers annually. Ridership drives economic benefit and cost recovery, which was also included in the study. Projections did not consider components such as train schedule, train equipment, amenities at stations, the number of stations, required new mechanical facilities, track and signal infrastructure that would be demanded by host railroads, and crew districts along the route. While exclusion of these components are indeed fatal flaws, this analysis considers the results at face value. And while RPA repeats (and repeats) that the study was not meant to be comprehensive and that other studies need to be done in the future, this analysis considers only the product (the ridership figures) and not the process.

This critique examines all the ridership data of the study, but for those who don’t want to devote the time necessary to read the entire text, a few highlights of the study are all that is necessary to indicate the study is of no value:

  • The stop in Bonner County, Idaho at Sandpoint is projected to have 131% that of Spokane County, Washington, but Bonner County has only 9% of the population of Spokane County.
  • The Lake County, Montana stop of Arlee has .87% the population of Missoula, Montana, but is project to have 93% of the ridership of Missoula.
  • Powell County, a BSPRA member, does not have a stop. The logical stop of Garrison would serve about 61,000 residents in Powell, Deer Lodge, and Silver Bow counties. Yet, the study includes a stop at Hysham, Montana in a county (Treasure) with less than 700 people.
  • The Bozeman/Yellowstone airport is by far Montana’s busiest given its proximity to Yellowstone National Park, the Big Sky resort, and Montana’s largest institute of higher learning (MSU). But the RPA study projects an Amtrak stop at Bozeman would have less usage than at Detroit Lakes, Minnesota or Dickinson, North Dakota.
  • Dickinson, North Dakota is very similar economically and demographically to Williston, North Dakota on the Empire Builder route. Yet, the study estimates ridership at Dickinson would be only 43% that of Williston.
  • The Bismarck/Mandan area is projected to have twice the ridership of Fargo/Moorhead, but the Fargo metro area has twice the population.
  • A stated goal of the BSPRA is to bring rail passenger service to Montana’s centers of population in the Southern part of the state. The Empire Builder route through Northern Montana taps only 31% of population expected to be served by the North Coast Hiawatha, but – according to the study – the Empire Builder route would garner ridership 103% that of a restored North Coast Hiawatha. The stop at Bozeman is projected to have only 84% of the annual patronage of the current Amtrak stop at East Glacier Park – a station only open for five months of the year.
  • Of the projected $270,653,102 annual “economic benefit” of the North Coast Hiawatha touted in the study, only 13% occurs within Montana, which is in line with only 14% of the ridership occurring within Montana. While Montana generates only about one-seventh of the ridership and economic benefit, it comprises one-third of the North Coast Hiawatha’s route miles. The study projects far fewer riders per route-mile in Montana than any of the other six states on the route.

To summarize: The North Coast Hiawatha Restoration study shows that a passenger train in Southern Montana would have little utility for its residents, and likely understates ridership. Yet, the Chairman of the BSPRA is on record stating that he supports the study “Unequivocally.” Which begs the question: WHY?

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Continuing the critique:

RPA ridership is indicated by county. Proposed station stops are indicated within the county, but if the county has more than one stop, specific station ridership is not conveyed – only the county ridership. One huge flaw in the RPA system is that it evidently only considers the county indicated without taking into account adjacent counties. The population indicated is usually the 2019 U.S. Census estimate. The biggest gaffe in this regard is indicating the population for only Ramsey County for the St. Paul/Minneapolis stop (St. Paul is in Ramsey county) while ignoring (evidently) much-more-populous Hennepin County (Minneapolis). For three of the counties in the study, the proposed station stop is not even in that county.

With this in mind, ridership in each of the 43 counties with their 51 projected station stops will be analyzed. Below is the ridership projections table for the North Coast Hiawatha from the study, with references to the most-recent station ridership figures for the Empire Builder from the RPA website.

Note about Empire Builder ridership: Amtrak lists station ridership by “boardings and alightings” which means that every passenger entraining or detraining is counted at that station. This is not an accurate representation of the actual number of people riding because that passenger would again be counted at their origin station for an alighting passenger and at their destination station for a boarding passenger. Therefore, to compensate, Empire Builder ridership used in the critique of the North Coast Hiawatha study is 50% of stated Amtrak station ridership, rounded up to the nearest whole person. For example: 2019 ridership at Wolf Point was 4,603; to make that comparable with figure on the NCH study, the ridership will be considered as being 2,302, half the indicated figure, rounded up to the nearest whole number.

King County (Stations Seattle, Auburn), Population 2,252,782, ridership: 30,406:

The population figure ignores that the Seattle/Tacoma metro area has a population of over 4 million. The Auburn stop especially would attract a large number of patrons from Pierce County (Tacoma), but the entire metro area should be considered. As an endpoint, Seattle should generate a large amount of patronage, but ignoring much of the population artificially reduces projected ridership. With only 30,406 riders annually, the study projects on average only 83 passengers daily departing Auburn on an eastward trip (assuming no Seattle-Auburn trips). For the Seattle metro area, the Empire Builder logged 42,407 passengers at its Seattle, Edmonds, and Everett stops in 2019 or 139% of the patronage projected that Seattle and Auburn for the North Coast Hiawatha.

Kittitas County (Stations: Cle Elum, Ellensburg), Population 47,935, ridership: 9,709. With a population of just over 2% of the understated population for the Seattle and Auburn stops combined, the study projects ridership to be 32% of King County.

Yakima County (Stations: Yakima, Toppenish), Population 250,873, ridership: 13,852. While the population of Yakima County is 523% that of Kittitas County, ridership is projected to be only 143% thereof. Projected ridership in Yakima County is similar to Empire Builder ridership in Ward County, North Dakota (Minot) at 13,641, but Yakima County has 359% of the population of Ward County.

Benton County (Station: Prosser), Population 204,390, ridership: 11,285. Ridership for the Prosser stop is unrealistic. Prosser has only about 13,000 people in the immediate area, and is at the far west-end of the county. Most of the population resides in Richland and Kennewick at the far east-end of the county, and would use the Pasco stop or more likely, a new stop in Kennewick. The study does seem to take this (an anomaly in the study) into account as ridership in Franklin County is higher than Benton county with its much-higher population.

Franklin County (Stations: Pasco, Connell), Population 95,222, ridership 19,288.

If the projected ridership in Benton and Franklin Counties (the Tri-Cities) is added together, the 30,573 figure is greater than that projected at Seattle/Auburn (30,406). Not a likely scenario.

Adams County (Station: Ritzville), Population 20,220, ridership 4,096. Ridership for this county is in line with similar populations in the study, but actual ridership at Ritzville would be only a fraction of the projection, since most of the county would use the Connell stop. Connell is much closer to the center of population of Adams County, Othello, where the area population is about 80% of the entire county. It’s only 24 miles from Othello to Connell, but 53 miles from Othello to Ritzville. Evidently the RPA model doesn’t take population distribution within the county into consideration, but it is obvious the only reason for a “stop” is to capture that county’s population. In theory, the model “still works” because it captures the population one way or the other IF the adjacent counties have a stop (if they don’t, like Pierce County, Washington, Kootenai County, Idaho, and Clay, Strearns, Hennepin, Carver, and Washington counties in Minnesota, the directly available population is not captured). But then this raises the question of why even designate specific station stops if county population is the primary driver?

Spokane County: (Stations: Cheney, Spokane), Population 522,798, ridership 7,056. Again, the one-county-only model ignores that the Spokane-Coeur d’Alene metro area has a population well over 700,000. Still, even with the model’s population base of well over 500,000, usage at Spokane (and Cheney) is projected to be fantastically low. Put another way: While the population of Adams County is only about 4% that of Spokane County, the projected ridership in Adams County is at 58% that of Spokane County. Also, the model projects NCH ridership to be only 30% that of current (2019) Empire Builder ridership. While ridership is projected to be relatively robust at the stations between Cle Elum and Pasco inclusive, ridership beyond Pasco in Washington State is anemic, and suggests that any “East-West” service train operate only Seattle to Pasco.

Bonner County: (Station: Sandpoint), Population 45,739, ridership 9,265. The study projects ridership at Sandpoint to be 131% that of Spokane-Cheney, with a stated population base of only 9% that of Spokane! The model projects NCH ridership to be 275% that of the Empire Builder at this same station. While this is obviously unlikely, it does show a difference between a projection and reality. Empire Builder ridership at Sandpoint (2019) was only 12% that of Whitefish though the communities share similar demographics and that they’re major tourist destinations which include a ski area. But one of the reasons for the anemic ridership at Sandpoint is scheduled train times – around midnight and 230 AM versus 900 PM and 730 AM at Whitefish. Arrival times dramatically affect usage, but such a consideration was not included for the North Coast Hiawatha ridership at Sandpoint or anywhere else; just an example of how the model can over-represent patronage if operational realities are not part of the considered input.

Sanders County: (Stations: Thompson Falls, Plains), Population 12,113, ridership 2,454. Ridership appears to be similar to other counties with a like population.

Lake County: (Station: Arlee), Population 30,458, ridership 6,169. Ridership appears to be similar to other counties with a like population, but Ravalli or Dixon would be better stations to serve most of Lake County’s population. (Ravalli is closer to most of the population; Dixon would be nearly equally so, and has existing track structure that would reduce station costs.)

Missoula County: (Station: Missoula), Population 119,600, ridership 6,604. The birthplace of the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority, Missoula county’s projected ridership compared to the population is one of the worst on the route. Again, not all population was considered, notably Ravalli County (44,000 residents) where 92% of all travel outside the county is via Missoula County (much more in the winter). Yet, Missoula County with 393% of the population of Lake County is projected to have only 107% of the ridership. Broken down on a city-to-city comparison, Arlee has .87% (as in less than 1 percent) of the population of Missoula, but its projected ridership is 93% that of Missoula!

Granite County: (Station: Drummond), Population 3,379, ridership 684. Ridership appears to be similar to other counties with a like population.

Powell County: Actually, Powell County is not indicated in the study, which is odd because it’s a BSPRA member. Since the creation of the railroad here, passenger trains operating on this route via Helena have stopped at Garrison to serve patrons in Powell County (county seat Deer Lodge), Anaconda-Deer Lodge County, and Butte-Silver Bow County. Exclusion of a Powell county station fails to tap significant ridership potential.

Lewis and Clark County: (Station: Helena), Population 69,432, ridership 14,064.

The ridership is more in line with area population, though that, too is understated considering Jefferson and Broadwater counties are part of the metro area. Helena is projected to have 212% of the ridership of Missoula, but has only 58% of the stated population. (Again, the population of both the Helena and Missoula metro areas is understated, but Missoula more so.)

Broadwater County: (Station: Townsend), Population 6,237, ridership 1,263. Ridership appears to be similar to other counties with a like population.

Gallatin County: (Station: Bozeman), Population 114,434, ridership 6,318. Worst-performing ridership station along the NCH route by far, especially considering it’s the gateway to Yellowstone National Park and the Big Sky Resort complex, is the home of the largest university in Montana, and is the largest tourism-oriented county in the state of Montana. Bozeman is projected to have only 79% of the ridership Amtrak currently has at East Glacier Park/Browning, one of the stops for Glacier National Park along the Empire Builder route (and is largely seasonal). The combined ridership projected at Bozeman and Livingston (9,682) as the primary stops for Yellowstone National Park is but 81% that of the combined actual 2019 ridership at Glacier National Park stops of East Glacier, Essex, and West Glacier (11,987). Gallatin County has 3.5 times the population of Stark County in North Dakota (Dickinson) – which has almost no tourism draw – but is projected to have slightly LESS ridership.

The Bozeman airport (at Belgrade) is Montana’s busiest. It serves Yellowstone National Park (along with other airports like West Yellowstone, Cody, Billings, and Jackson), and has near exclusivity serving the Big Sky Resort complex. The NCH study projects the proposed train will produce only .8 percent (less than 1%) of the travel than does the Bozeman airport. This is in contrast to the Empire Builder at Whitefish, which with its two daily trains (one east and one west) attracts 8% that of the ridership at Glacier Park International airport southeast of Whitefish. In other words, comparing the Kalispell(Whitefish) and Belgrade(Bozeman) airports, the Empire Builder at Whitefish currently attracts ten times the patronage than the study projects would occur at Bozeman compared to airline boardings. (Amtrak ridership at Whitefish is for Whitefish only and does not include West Glacier, Essex, or East Glacier.) Considering passenger train ridership alone, Bozeman is projected to generate only 23% of the patronage of the existing Whitefish stop.

Park County: (Station: Livingston), Population 16,606, ridership 3,364. Ridership appears not to be affected positively by its proximity to Yellowstone National Park. (With no regular public transportation between Livingston and the Park, this is likely true.) The population of Park County is almost identical to that of Hill County, Montana (County Seat: Havre), a county that receives relatively little economic impact from tourism; but 2019 Empire Builder ridership in Havre is 152% of the projected NCH ridership at Livingston.

Sweetgrass County: (Station: Big Timber), Population 3,737, ridership 757. Ridership seems to be in line with population. The RPA database incorrectly identifies the county name, it’s Sweet Grass – two words, not one. Not a big deal – unless you’re in Sweet Grass County. Montanans know that Sweetgrass is a community on Interstate 15 at the Alberta border.

Stillwater County: (Station: Columbus), Population 9,642, ridership 1,953. Ridership seems to be in line with population in the study, but still understated. For example, ridership in at Columbus stop is projected to be only be 92% of the existing Malta stop in Phillips County, but Stillwater County has 236% of the population of Phillips County, and would logically draw significant patronage from adjacent Carbon County.

Yellowstone County: (Station: Billings), Population 161,300, ridership 8,906. Another underperforming station for ridership. With 232% of the population of Lewis and Clark County, Yellowstone County’s projected ridership is but 63%. In fact, Billings has projected ridership only 46% of “Mandan/Bismarck” though its metro population stands at 143%. And with 981% of the population of Hill County, the Billings stop in Yellowstone County is projected to have but 174% of the ridership at the current (2019) Havre stop.

Treasure County: (Station: Hysham), Population 696, ridership 141. Ridership in line with population.

Rosebud County: (Station: Forsyth), Population 8,937, ridership 1,745. Ridership in line with population.

Custer County: (Station: Miles City), Population 11,402, ridership 2,310. Ridership in line with population.

Prairie County: (Station: Terry), Population 1,077, ridership 218. Ridership in line with population.

Dawson County: (Station: Glendive), Population 8,613, ridership 1,745. Ridership in line with population.

Wibaux County: (Station: Wibaux), Population: 969, ridership 196. Ridership in line with population. Note: The combined populations of the counties east of Yellowstone County in Montana (Treasure, Rosebud, Custer, Prairie, Dawson, and Wibaux) is 31,694. Projected NCH ridership in these six counties is 6,355. Contrast this with three counties directly north along the Empire Builder route in Montana: Phillips, Valley, and Roosevelt with station stops of Malta, Glasgow, and Wolf Point respectively. Together, these counties have a combined population of 22,242, and a combined ridership at Empire Builder station stops of 6,810. The RPA study is projecting that while counties along the NCH route in Eastern Montana have 142% of the population of the three easternmost Montana counties along the Empire Builder route, NCH ridership would only be 93% thereof. For whatever reason, the RPA study projects the NCH to have much less utility in Eastern Montana than the current Amtrak service.

Billings County: (Station: Medora), Population 923, ridership 188. Ridership in line with population, but it shouldn’t be. Medora is a “political stop” as the community has shown interest in the passenger train due to its being a tourist destination (by North Dakota standards) with its proximity to Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Yet, the ridership doesn’t reflect this, and it’s about the same as Wibaux County, Montana with a similar population. Again, the RPA model is evidently unable to acknowledge stops with tourism potential and project ridership accordingly.

Stark County: (Station: Dickinson), Population 31,489, ridership 6,378. Ridership in line with population in this study, but as far as demographics (and referencing the Bakken Oil Boom), Stark County (Dickinson) is very similar to Williams County (Williston) along the Empire Builder route. Yet, the study projects ridership at Dickinson to be only 43% that of Williston. (Clearly the model is not in tune with local demographics – and Williston has far superior air service).

Burleigh County: (Station: Mandan/Bismarck), Population 95,626, ridership 19,369. It’s curious that the station is “Mandan/Bismarck” when Mandan is in Morton County and Bismarck in Burleigh County. In this case, choosing Burleigh as the “study” county is good, was it has much more population, but overall, the population of the Bismarck metro area is understated (i.e. Morton County not considered). Interestingly, though the study indicates that “Mandan-Bismarck” has about half the population of Fargo, it predicts twice the ridership.

Stutsman County: (Station: Jamestown), Population 20,704, ridership 4,194. Ridership in line with population.

Barnes County: (Station: Valley City), Population 10,415, ridership 2,110. Ridership in line with population.

Cass County: (Station: Fargo), Population 181,923, ridership 10,045. Ridership in line with the population, but the population is understated. Fargo-Moorhead metro area has 245,000 people, or about 121% the population of the St. Cloud metro area, but the study projects ridership at Fargo to be only 51% that of St. Cloud.

Becker County: (Station: Detroit Lakes), Population 34,423, ridership 6,973. Ridership is in line with population, but is 297% that of the Empire Builder at the same station, even though 6 of the top 10 stations for ridership at Detroit Lakes would be served by both trains…. Like Dickinson, North Dakota, the study projects Detroit Lakes to gather more ridership than Bozeman, Montana, the train’s stop for Yellowstone National Park. Must be the casino at Mahnomen…..

Wadena County: (Station: Staples), Population 13,682, ridership 2,771. Unlike Detroit Lakes, projected ridership is only 92% of the Empire Builder. Again, not all area population is considered, and in fact, the RPA model places the Staples station in the wrong county; it’s actually in Todd (population 25,262). In operational reality, the Staples stop for the Empire Builder is actually busier than the Detroit Lakes stop (contrary to the North Coast Hiawatha RPA projection); this is because Staples attracts riders from the Brainerd micropolitan area and its 96,000 residents.

Sherburne County: (Station: St. Cloud), Population 97,238, ridership 19,696. Projected ridership is a whopping 430% that of the Empire Builder. Another stop using county data which doesn’t include the station (Benton County); In reality, most of the 200,000 people in the St. Cloud metro area live just across the Mississippi River from the station in Stearns County. An inconsequential number of the residents reside in Sherburne County, which is probably indicative of why the ridership projection is so skewed.

Ramsey County: (Station: St. Paul), Population 560,321, ridership 30,386. Another misrepresentation of the nearly 3.7 million people in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area. Moreover, this shows that the study just “rubber-stamped” Empire Builder stops from Fargo and east; instead, it should have added a stop at somewhere like Coon Rapids (where a Northstar commuter rail station exists) to include much of the Minneapolis population. Not surprisingly, the RPA study projects ridership at St. Paul to be a dismal 67% that of the Empire Builder.

From St. Paul to Chicago inclusive, the station stops will be shown together to indicate how erratic the NCH ridership projections are and how most do not coincide with actual travel patterns for the Empire Builder.

The majority of the patronage between Chicago and St. Paul/Minneapolis is local travel. Comparing existing Empire Builder ridership with proposed North Coast Hiawatha ridership in this segment:

  1. NCH ridership at St. Paul is 67% that of the EB.
  2. NCH ridership at Red Wing is 236% that of the EB.
  3. NCH ridership at Winona is 155% that of the EB.
  4. NCH ridership at La Crosse is 51% that of the EB.
  5. NCH ridership at Tomah is 164% that of the EB.
  6. NCH ridership at Wisconsin Dells is 73% that of the EB.
  7. NCH ridership at Columbus/Portage is 119% that of the EB.
  8. NCH ridership at Milwaukee is 318% that of the EB.
  9. NCH ridership at Chicago/Glenview is 94% that of the EB.

(And will mention again that ridership at Detroit Lakes for the NCH was 297% that of the EB and at St. Cloud 430% of the EB)

Given that the primary destinations for travel between St. Paul and Chicago are stations between St. Paul and Chicago inclusive, the projected ridership for the North Coast Hiawatha should be similar to that of the Empire Builder, but only at Chicago-Glenview and Columbus-Portage is this the case. In all the other cases, the North Coast Hiawatha is significantly more or significantly less, with ridership figures for Milwaukee and Red Wing being off-the-charts unexplainable. While one would not expect the NCH ridership projection for these stations to be the same or even similar than the Empire Builder, the amount more or less compared to other stations in this segment should be proportionally the same and it’s not – it varies widely.

The Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority acknowledges the importance of the Empire Builder to Northern Montana, and in doing so also mentions that it does not serve the majority of Montana, most of whom reside in the Southern part of the state. Logically, one would then expect the study to then reflect ridership associated with that much-greater population. To expose some interesting aspects of the study in this regard, here’s a synopsis of state ridership for both the NCH and EB (2019).

Projected NCH ridership and current EB ridership (Seattle section) by state:

State>>>

IL

WI

MN

ND

MT

ID

WA

Total

EB

74,154

47,705

65,987

50,560

60,676

3,363

78,392

380,837

NCH

69,513

71,237

79,438

42,284

58,956

9,265

95,692

426,385

Stations served by the EB: 46, but only 45 at any one time. Five stations on the Portland section of the train, giving a total of 40 stations from Chicago to Seattle inclusive. Stations on the Portland section of the Empire Builder (Pasco, Wishram, Bingen, Vancouver, and Portland) are not included in ridership, though ridership Spokane and east include riders which may be using the Portland section of the Empire Builder west of Spokane.

Number of proposed stations for the NCH in the study: 51

As stated above, ridership at many stations in the NCH proposal range from fantastically large (like St. Cloud, MN and Milwaukee, WI) to unusually small (like Spokane, WA). The North Coast Hiawatha projection is for 45,548 more passengers annually than for the 2019 Empire Builder, but 94% of the advantage for the NCH occurs in just three states: Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Idaho. The remainder would be in Washington State, but is largely offset by the Empire Builder with more riders in Illinois, North Dakota, and Montana. Yes, Montana. The study projected that a revived North Coast Hiawatha would serve 1,720 FEWER patrons in Montana than actual ridership on the Empire Builder. It’s not a surprise considering that, other than the very strange ridership spike at Arlee and Helena, the remaining major Montana NCH stops vastly underperform (and as have been explained in earlier text in this document); Based on Montana station patronage alone, the Empire Builder serves 90 passengers per route mile in Montana annually, while the North Coast Hiawatha – according to the study – would serve only 76. (The NCH route – if operated via Dixon – is 103 miles further crossing the state.) In fact, of the seven states that would be served by the NCH, the model clearly states that the least amount of utility (determined by station usage only) for the train is within Montana. (North Dakota is 115.5 passengers annually per route mile, and Idaho is 106.5, with all others much more.) The train has many more route miles in Montana than any of the other six states.

The 42,284 annual boardings projected in North Dakota is about 8,000 fewer than registered by the Empire Builder in pre-Covid 2019, though both routes serve about the same population in the state. Even in Montana, where the Empire Builder route has only 31% of the population of the proposed North Coast Hiawatha, the study projects fewer riders for the Hiawatha. All told, the study projects that while 49% of the mileage for the North Coast Hiawatha is in the states of North Dakota and Montana, they would produce only 24% of the riders. Or, the states with half its route miles produce only a quarter of its riders. (For the Empire Builder, North Dakota and Montana have 42% of its route miles, and produce 26% of its riders.)

While the NCH projects exceptionally poor ridership at major communities like Billings, Bozeman, and Missoula which are likely the main contributors to Montana ridership being below actual numbers registered by the Empire Builder in Montana, the difference is likely even greater than indicated. Much like poor Empire Builder ridership (relative to other stations) at places like Spokane, Sandpoint, and Fargo due to middle-of-the-night departure times, actual Amtrak trains are subject to reduced ridership due to service interruptions. In the case of the Empire Builder specifically, it routinely loses many thousands of riders each year due to service interruptions – mostly due to weather, but sometimes due to derailments or other events such as recurring annual service interruptions to one its major connecting trains, the Coast Starlight. Were the North Coast Hiawatha an actual operating train, its ridership too, would be subject to reductions due to service interruptions; but as a simply a computer model, its ridership is only affected by input variables, not by operational reality. In this case, some of its ridership is probably overstated, but in too many cases, the lack of proper consideration of population understates potential ridership. And apparently nowhere – in locations such as Bozeman. Missoula, and Medora – is tourism a component of the study. Or, at least the model doesn’t show it.

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The following is a response from RPA with questions I had about the study, prior to its being released:

As an overall observation, however, our work for Big Sky was never intended to answer the types of questions you posed in that level of detail. Our job was to estimate, credibly, ridership for a restored route using a set of stations Big Sky asked us to use, and then to use that ridership to calculate economic benefits resulting from that ridership in those places. When you asked how that's possible without knowing the precise alignments or infrastructure, this detail below is a big part of the answer -- ridership drives additional spending in localities and removes vehicle-miles traveled (VMTs) from the road to produce savings in maintenance spending and damages from injuries and fatalities.

I'm going to attempt to answer some of what you've posed below (for the most part in order):

>>> It is based on the IMPLAN program, which appears to be used widely. But it's also only good as the input data. <<<

Yes, but it's much more than that. In 2017 we paid the University of Southern Mississippi's Trent Lott Center to co-develop with us a "Railway Benefits Calculator" to assess the direct economic benefits of passenger-rail service. This is the Rail Passengers' proprietary model, which we have used in a variety of ways. Therefore, the input data comes from original RPA research, plus Amtrak published sources, plus desired attributes from the folks commissioning the study -- in this case, Big Sky and the Western Transportation Institute.

Our proprietary Rail Passengers model uniquely assesses 47 variables, such as average bus operating revenues, passenger miles by car, emissions control costs per unit of CO2, percentage of rail riders who are visitors versus residents, and so forth. Our model examines the way in which those variables interact with each other to produce different outcomes in the form of additional increments of spending or savings to consumers. Our model’s assessment produces outputs estimating the effects of ridership on things like visitor spending across different categories and the savings that riders can expect to pocket because of not driving or flying. The two core drivers of our model are ridership and mileage. Ridership figures drive the additional increments of spending, while mileage figures drive the savings produced. This is Step 1 of our economic-benefits modeling process, and it produces a useful accounting of direct benefits stemming from rail ridership all on its own.

Our model's calculated outputs are the initial inputs that we use to feed IMPLAN. This first step is INDEPENDENT of IMPLAN. We then combine this work with the additional second step to broaden our view of the benefits of rail, entering our model's results/outputs into the IMPLAN tool.

As you note, IMPLAN is widely used by universities, the Federal government and economic-development agencies and is more or less the gold standard. And IMPLAN does something that our model does not. That's worth explaining here before we go further.

IMPLAN relies on Input-Output (I-O) analysis, which looks at inter-industry relationships within an economy. It captures all monetary market transactions between industries. By doing this, an analyst can use the tool to study the effects of a change in one or several economic activities – say, introducing a passenger rail service -- on an entire economy. Uniquely among economic-study tools, IMPLAN also includes transactions BETWEEN industries and institutions and between institutions themselves, giving a truly complete picture of all monetary market transactions taking place over a given time period.

IMPLAN by itself doesn't fully capture the direct economic benefits that our modeling work developed in 2018. And our model doesn't fully capture the Input-Output benefits that IMPLAN does. It is by COMBINING the two steps (our model plus IMPLAN) that we believe we're really more fully describing what we've been saying since the day I came on board in 2014: that rail "is an economic engine in the communities it serves."

Put more simply, after Rail Passengers’ model identifies the new spending that enters a particular economy from the rail service, the IMPLAN tool traces the flow of that money through other parts of the local economy and the extent to which those flows generate additional labor income, value-added benefits and tax effects.

So with all of that as background, let me add a few things:

A - This Was Not A Full-Scope Benefit-Cost Study

Big Sky contracted with Rail Passengers for an offering we call a "Research Note," in which we take inputs defined by the customer, run them through the models, and report back on the results. (You can see an example of a Research Note at this link.) We offer very small-scale, targeted research at one price level and then a spectrum of research and analysis products all the way up to full-blown economic studies with deep assessments of ridership, connections, construction costs, and so forth.

The goal of a "Research Note" is to produce an initial assessment, a credible answer to a "what if" posed by a customer. We produce a series of tables summarizing the outputs of our models, along with about a 10-page summary of the results and things to consider. Our list of offerings puts this work at about a $25,000 level of effort, around 30 days or so of model runs and analysis.

A more comprehensive study would be more like what we did to raise the alarm about the proposed bustitution on the Southwest Chief. (Link to that study here.) That was close to 100 pages and included much deeper analysis on a lot of the input factors. That took about seven months to perform. We remain prepared to perform those kinds of studies for customers also, with a starting price of about $75,000.

A lot of the "unanswered" questions you pose below could be addressed in a larger study, and we are in negotiations with both Big Sky and the Western Transportation Institute about a Phase II effort that might broaden both the scope and the depth.

Our independent work on North Coast includes the following high-level tasks:

- to assess independently whether Amtrak's 2009 PIP ridership projection still applies

- to apply adjustments to the ridership based on our research going back to 2016

- to use the adjusted ridership as an input to our proprietary Rail Passengers Association economic-benefits calculator model

- to use the calculator model's outputs to conduct a parallel IMPLAN analysis of additional benefits such as industry-to-industry effects

- to report the combined results of the two model runs in tabular form with explanatory notes to Big Sky

B - The Basis of RPA Projections

For this study of restored rail service, Rail Passengers calculated 602 separate variables for 49 counties in which stations would be located, across seven states. We began by updating key assumptions from the Amtrak 2009 Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) restoration study, including examining Census Bureau data for population and income changes in the counties studied between 2009 and today.

In other words, when looking at the capital spending portion of this exercise we took at face value Amtrak's 2009 descriptions of work that would be required on sidings, rights-of-way, signaling, stations, platforms and equipment purchases. We then assessed those costs based on inflation as well as on history from other kinds of projects.

We excluded equipment purchases because Amtrak already has on the table with Congress an equipment plan that would effectively double the size of the existing fleet, aimed at supporting existing service plus growth. The 100-ish cars and locomotives needed for the NCH would likely be added to or drawn from that plan.

Rail Passengers independently looked at the 2019 population of each served county, as well as the 2009 population of each county. Rail Passengers also looked at median income. For other purposes, we already have done this for other routes (the Empire Builder, the Sunset Limited, the Texas Eagle, e.g.). Next, we spent considerable time comparing population, population growth and median income on the proposed North Coast Hiawatha to those same figures on the other very long-distance routes, which share similar characteristics to the proposed new service.

An underlying assumption as we built the rest of the projection was that the North Coast Hiawatha's characteristics are similar enough to the other long-distance routes that rider behavior would probably be similar as well. For example, we know from examining literally every station stop in the Amtrak system that rural and thinly populated counties are outsize users of Amtrak, with the top 100 or so rural stops seeing ridership levels of anywhere from equal to their population to 2.6 times their population. Rail Passengers has been developing data since 2016 on the differences in the ways that populations in rural counties use Amtrak’s long-distance routes compared with more suburban or urban communities. This work allowed us to generalize about likely passenger behavior on the restored North Coast Hiawatha, which would have characteristics broadly similar to Amtrak’s Empire Builder, Texas Eagle and Sunset Limited routes. This work underpins our county-by-county ridership estimates.

Significant population and income growth have taken place throughout the areas we studied, but especially in nine counties that would be served by the route scenario that Big Sky asked us to examine: King, Kittitas, Benton, and Franklin counties in Washington state; Missoula, Broadwater, and Gallatin counties in Montana; and Stark and Cass counties in North Dakota. According to 2019 Census Bureau estimates, these communities grew by a net 441,032 residents since 2009.

C - Your Questions, In Order

"1 - What is the route of the train? Via Helena or Butte? Via Superior or Dixon?"

"2 - What stops will the train make?"

Big Sky commissioned us to model ridership and results for the following counties and stations:

County Name

Station(s)

King (WA)

Seattle, Auburn

Kittitas (WA)

Cle Elum, Ellensburg

Yakima (WA)

Yakima, Toppenish

Benton (WA)

Prosser

Franklin (WA)

Pasco, Connell

Adams (WA)

Ritzville

Spokane (WA)

Cheney, Spokane

Bonner (ID)

Sandpoint

Sanders (MT)

Thompson Falls, Plains

Lake (MT)

Arlee

Missoula (MT)

Missoula

Granite (MT)

Drummond

Lewis and Clark (MT)

Helena

Broadwater (MT)

Townsend

Gallatin (MT)

Bozeman

Park (MT)

Livingston

Sweetgrass (MT)

Big Timber

Stillwater (MT)

Columbus

Yellowstone (MT)

Billings

Treasure (MT)

Hysham

Rosebud (MT)

Forsyth

Custer (MT)

Miles City

Prairie (MT)

Terry

Dawson (MT)

Glendive

Wibaux (MT)

Wibaux

Billings (ND)

Medora

Stark (ND)

Dickinson

Burleigh (ND)

Mandan/Bismarck

Stutsman (ND)

Jamestown

Barnes (ND)

Valley City

Cass (ND)

Fargo

Becker (MN)

Detroit Lakes

Wadena (MN)

Staples

Sherburne (MN)

St. Cloud

Ramsey (MN)

St. Paul Minneapolis

Goodhue (MN)

Red Wing

Winona (MN)

Winona

La Crosse (WI)

La Crosse

Monroe (WI)

Tomah

Juneau (WI)

Wisconsin Dells

Columbia (WI)

Columbus, Portage

Milwaukee (WI)

Milwaukee

Cook (IL)

Glenview, Chicago

"3 - What is the cost of the station facilities based on individual needs?"

We took Amtrak's 2009 assessment of needed station work at face value and added a factor for inflation. We did not assess individual needs. Based on the 2009 Amtrak document and then looking at inflation, we assessed that there would be roughly $27 million in station capital improvements required.

"4 - What will the rolling stock be? (How many cars of each type, and anticipated on board amenities)"

We took Amtrak's assessment from the 2009 PIP report at face value here as well; roughly 100 cars and locomotives needed. We did not include the economic benefits from this capital spending in our overall assessment for two reasons: one, the equipment will serve the entire route, so benefits won't be confined to any one state or even accrue to one state and purchases won’t directly affect the states served, and two, also because new long-distance equipment purchases are included in larger Amtrak growth plans contemplated by Congress and the U.S. DOT. Assessing the on-board amenities and other details was beyond the scope of the 10-page Research Note we were commissioned to produce.

"5 - What is the cost of the rolling stock and locomotives?"

As noted above, we didn't go into too much detail on these kinds of questions because they were beyond the scope of the 10-page Research Note we were commissioned to produce. Economies of scale from a larger fleet replacement and growth order make this a difficult number to understand right now. Amtrak wants $2 billion overall for re-fleeting, but that's systemwide. A best estimate here is probably about $300 million or so attributable to the North Coast Hiawatha.

"6 - What is schedule of the train?"

The scope of our Research Note was not designed to adjust ridership projections on the basis of the perceived attractiveness of the schedule.

"7 - Where will the train's inspection points be west of Fargo and what will the cost of infrastructure be?"

We did not specifically assess this, as it was beyond the scope of the 10-page Research Note we were commissioned to produce.

"8 - What track and signal infrastructure upgrades have been dictated by host railroads, and what is the cost?"

As in many other portions of the Research Note connected to capital investment, we took the Amtrak 2009 PIP assessment at face value. We applied modern costing and added the effects of inflation to the specific projects Amtrak outlined as necessary. Based on those adjustments to Amtrak's 2009 estimates, we believe track and signal upgrades as outlined would cost about $768.5 million over a five-to-seven-year period. From an economic-benefits modeling point of view, these investments produce both short- and long-term benefits to the states in which those investments occur in the form of construction equipment purchases and leases, construction employment and the multiplier effects of that activity in the local economies.

"9 - Do the track and signal infrastructure upgrade costs include the money currently allocated for the "second train" between Chicago and St. Paul, or would this be a "third" train and require additional infrastructure spending?"

We made no assessment of or adjustment for the second "Baby Builder" frequency. To the extent that the proposed North Coast train would run in the same territory, we can assume some of those costs will have already been covered but we made no attempt to carve that out in our assessment.

"10 - Does the track and signal infrastructure upgrade costs include those that will be dictated by BNSF for the East-West route in Washington between Pasco and Auburn, or is it anticipated that these will already be in place (and that service started) before a North Coast Hiawatha operates and the North Coast Hiawatha would fill the "slot" of an East-West service train, or is the North Coast Hiawatha anticipated to be an additional train on the East-West route across Washington and therefore subject to even more infrastructure upgrade to accommodate?"

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, we were commissioned to perform an analysis of the economic benefits of a steady-state level of ridership on a restored route through a given set of counties and/or stations. This was not a full study and was never intended to be or positioned as such. The answer to question 8 above applies here also: we made no independent assessment of Amtrak's proposed track and signal infrastructure upgrades, nor did we propose any of our own, because that level of effort would have been out of scope.

"11 - Are infrastructure upgrades to alternate routes (which are operationally equal or superior) being considered to ameliorate cost to upgrade the North Coast Hiawatha route?"

See above. Big Sky asked us to look at service to the stations and counties I outlined in the answers to questions one and two. This was not a full study to baseline the implementation plan for a new service.

"12 - What connecting services will the train have, especially to other trains? This ties into the schedule, of course, but to complete a projection, one certainly must know the connection matrix - in the case of Amtrak, at Chicago and Seattle (assuming no Portland section)."

The full raft of connections to/from Seattle and Chicago would obviously come into play. We feel as if we've accounted for this somewhat through the process of building population/ridership curves for existing Amtrak service which allow us to generalize to new services. But again, the same caveat applies: this was not a full study.

We estimated ridership based on population and communities served; using our proprietary model we applied those ridership figures by county to determine direct county-level benefits in the form of visitor spending, induced travel, vehicle-miles traveled (VMTs) removed from the roads and reduced road accidents and fatalities. Using the model's outputs in those categories, we used the IMPLAN tool to estimate induced industry-to-industry transactions, additional employment, and tax effects from localities through counties, states and Federal payments. The total of all of those multipliers is the overall assessment of economic benefit from a given level of ridership in a given year.

Overall, based on the above, Rail Passengers' initial assessment is that restoration of the North Coast Hiawatha as a daily Amtrak service would generate $271 million each year in economic benefits to the seven states served while costing Amtrak roughly $68 million per year to operate – a cost offset 66% by collection of $41 million each year in fares and other customer revenue. This is steady-state economic benefit and not tied to any capital spending that might also be associated with restoring the service. At least 426,000 or so passengers can be expected to take this train each year, including perhaps 29,000 or so new passengers who would not otherwise travel at all using any travel mode if the train did not exist. We are obligated to deliver our final results to Big Sky at the end of September, and therefore ALL of these results are subject to revision and correction. Our study team will be looking especially closely at the ridership projections to see whether they may be too conservative relative to other routes, and also will produce a separate assessment of the potential economic benefit to the seven states of the proposed capital investments in signaling and rights-of-way.

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My observations about the RPA response:

Station stops:

No less than 32 new stations, and about half of them never were stops when the North Coast Hiawatha operated. The sheer number is ridiculous if for no other reason that they would add two hours running time each way. But the worst thing about them – and the part that relieves the study of any credibility – is that so many are politically motivated. In Montana, the stops include one in EVERY county, clearly just to gain support for the project – but the likelihood all these would happen is zero, along with that they shouldn’t happen. Hysham, Montana a stop? A town with less than 300 people in a county with less than 700 in close proximity to Forsyth (actually, I doubt Forsyth warrants a stop). Terry and Wibaux aren’t much better, but they did join the coalition. Same for Big Timber, Townsend, and Columbus. Arlee is only indicated as a stop for Lake County, but is only 27 highway miles to Missoula on almost all four-lane highway; A stop at Ravalli or Dixon would be closer to Lake county population centers, and Dixon even has a controlled siding, which would be one component of station cost. Drummond is indicated as a stop because Granite County (population 3,300) has joined the coalition, but Garrison – just 20 miles east, but not in Granite County – would better serve Powell, Anaconda-Deer Lodge, and Butte-Silver Bow counties with a cumulative population of 61,500.

In North Dakota, the standard North Coast Hiawatha stops are proposed (though Bismarck and Mandan are consolidated, which likely should be the case). But Medora is shown as a station stop: Reason: They are the community that most passes for a tourist destination in North Dakota (North Dakota is the least-visited state as measured by tourism and tourism dollars) due to its proximity to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and they have expressed interest in the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority’s work. But visitation to the park is limited to three summer months, with the vast majority just being “pit stop” visitors on Interstate 94. (As you drive across North Dakota and Eastern Montana on I-94 not even passing through communities, your concept of what passes for scenery changes, and Medora can be a welcome break.) But the reality is that Medora has only about 100 full-time residents in a county with less than 1,000. And it shows that the Medora stop is proposed to specifically pacify supporters because more logic stops could be made at Glen Ullin or Beach. Not that a place like Glen Ullin makes a lot of sense either (population 800), but it is located on a north/south paved highway (no such thing at Medora) and could be used by residents of Beulah and Hazen, which can pass for semi-major towns in North Dakota (area population of about 6,000). Medora is basically a ghost town 9 months of the year. It should also be noted that from a historical perspective considering past schedules of the North Coast Hiawatha and its predecessor, a train would likely not pass through Medora at a marketable hour of the day from a tourism perspective.

In Washington State, stops mirror those proposed in All Aboard Washington’s East-West rail corridor proposal, so there’s a lot of them. When the last Empire Builder used this route between Spokane and Seattle in 1981, it had four intermediate stops; this proposal has ten. (Counting Spokane and Seattle, that’s 12 stops in 396 miles.)

So, here’s where the concept of number of station stops and station costs comes into play: Obviously, the more station stops, the more riders. And – as stated – since the schedule of the train wasn’t factored into ridership, the more stops can only skew ridership upward. But: Thirty-two additional stops not only should not happen, it will not – not at some of the places described above.

Station facilities:

As stated, “We took Amtrak's 2009 assessment of needed station work at face value and added a factor for inflation. We did not assess individual needs. Based on the 2009 Amtrak document and then looking at inflation, we assessed that there would be roughly $27 million in station capital improvements required.” This is probably the time to be a bit blunt, but did RPA take into account that the 2009 Amtrak document could be highly flawed? This is the best example. That document estimates the cost for 17 “new” stations to be $17,627,543 for 17 stations. Not all are the same, (but there are lots of similarities in assigned costs) but they average out to be about $1.04 million each. For 32 stations, that would be about $34 million in 2009 dollars or $43 million (or about $1.35 million per station) today – so right there, there’s a disconnect from the $27 million figure. But does anyone really think that $1.35 million for an average station is anywhere logical?

Cases in point: Also in 2009, the State of Washington opened two new Amtrak stations: One was in Leavenworth at a cost of $1 million, and the other in Stanwood at a cost of $5 million. ($1.27 million and $6.36 million in 2021 dollars, respectively.) The station at Leavenworth involved a lot of volunteer work to keep the cost down and required no additional trackwork; the station at Stanwood required lengthening of a siding at the request of BNSF. Neither station has a heated enclosure or bathroom facilities. Basically, they’re open-air shelters. Given Stanwood’s proximity to Skagit Bay, part of Puget Sound and the Pacific Ocean, it rarely gets below freezing. Leavenworth is higher and colder, but the vast number of patrons using the stop are tourists who have access to transportation to nearby hotels. (More than 95% of the riders entraining and detraining at Leavenworth are going to and from Everett, Edmonds, and Seattle, and block space that could be better used for long-distance travelers – the stop has the lowest per capita ticket revenue of any Empire Builder stop by far.) Open-air shelters are sufficient in Stanwood and Leavenworth, but not anywhere else east due to extreme winter cold – especially east of the Rockies where temperatures can plummet to minus 40 degrees. The Stanwood and Leavenworth stations give us examples of the cost of bare bones stations without shelter, with or without associated trackwork.

The question then becomes what type of shelter? Again, this is a component of ridership. How competitive could this service be if people had to wait in a heated shelter with no restrooms? What about checked baggage and other station services? Remember, there are currently NO stations capable of accommodating a passenger train (other than shared Empire Builder stops), and some are what would be considered – at least by the locals – as major cities. Granted, Amtrak has unstaffed stations in rather large cities, such as Erie, Pennsylvania. But would a barebones facility be accepted in Mandan/Bismarck, Billings, Bozeman, Missoula, or Yakima? The costs would run from as low as $100,000 (basic heated shelter) into scores of millions (ticket office/waiting area/baggage room) and it all depends on the type of facility. That’s why just plugging in a standard amount as Amtrak did in the 2009 study was disingenuous. And then so is the IMPLAN model.

And then there’s the operating infrastructure associated with stations, which here I am considering separate from the train operating infrastructure. BNSF has specific guidelines on requirements for trackage at new stations. For instance, they can’t be on a curve; the leaving signal must be visible to avoid “delay in block.” And, like at Stanwood, there is the additional trackage required to allow fluidity for freight traffic while the passenger train is stopped. Examples of proposed stations currently on single main track that might require multiple dual-control switches and additional trackage: Valley City, Wibaux, Miles City, Bozeman, Arlee, Ritzville, Prosser, Toppenish, Yakima, Ellensburg, Cle Elum, and Auburn – and these mostly are based on locations of existing or “downtown” locations. (I would guess that MRL would make requirements similar to those on BNSF as is the case with their interactions with several other business ventures.) But overall, this, too, is far from generic, and runs the full gamut. On the one hand, BNSF might welcome Amtrak in their facilities at Dickinson and Glendive, as the railroad has reduced operations and personnel dramatically in the past decade, and abundant space is likely available in the existing depot facility (though Amtrak would have to remodel). Then there is Medora: No way this will be a stop. At the bottom of one of the steepest grades for eastward coal trains, the railroad will not allow a stop where the train needs its momentum to crest the hill at Fryburg (also no room for a second track). Depots at Livingston, Ritzville and Toppenish have been repurposed into museums and would happily, and relatively easily be modified into a shelter. Billings and Missoula have also been repurposed and with significant investment, meaning larger brand-new stations would be required – somewhere. The “somewhere” might even require land acquisition which will balloon the cost exponentially. The station building at Bozeman is completely derelict and will need complete renovation or a new facility. Bozeman (unlike what some of the more vocal members of the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority from Livingston may claim) would be the train’s gateway to Yellowstone Park – and almost as important – to the Big Sky resort complex. The Bozeman airport in Belgrade is Montana’s busiest and offers regular transportation to Big Sky, and more options for rental car facilities and charter motor coaches. The airport is in immediate proximity to the rail line which would be used by the North Coast Hiawatha. As transit anywhere in Montana is not great, a viable option for the Bozeman stop might well be adjacent to the airport to allow easier access to other transportation – not only ground, but air. Auburn, Washington is indicated as a stop. Is the stop expected to be at the Sound Transit facilities? This is possible (though no climate -controlled shelter or station services for a long-distance train would be available), but track configuration would require both the eastward and westward North Coast Hiawatha trains to use the northward Sound Transit platform. This is possible, but would likely not be approved by BNSF which keeps a main track (in each direction) available for passenger operations AND it would confuse passengers (the two platforms at Auburn are not immediately accessible if the passenger realized he was at the wrong one, for instance). Therefore, the stop for this long-distance train would likely have to at another location. Amtrak used the East Auburn location until 1981, which was just east of Auburn on what is now the Stampede Subdivision. Nothing left of that facility, so an entire new facility would need to be constructed, and since it would serve over a million people (south Puget Sound including Tacoma), it would need to substantial. (It should be noted that the Northern Pacific Railroad specifically stopped its “transcontinental” passenger trains at East Auburn instead of Auburn because it knew such trains would interfere with the more-frequent north-south traffic on the Seattle-Portland main. We need to be reminded of this history as Auburn is still a busy spot on BNSF.)

Again, not believing that the 32-station example has any merit, but I would be surprised if actual station cost (including track, as at Stanwood) for even 17 or so stations could be $200 million or much more. We really don’t know as each needs to look at individually. The only thing that is known is that the 2009 Amtrak report assigned costs that were inaccurate and arbitrary, and building on them with the IMPLAN model makes it even more so.

Operations Infrastructure

With regard to infrastructure required by the railroad, the response, “As in many other portions of the Research Note connected to capital investment, we took the Amtrak 2009 PIP assessment at face value. We applied modern costing and added the effects of inflation to the specific projects Amtrak outlined as necessary. Based on those adjustments to Amtrak's 2009 estimates, we believe track and signal upgrades as outlined would cost about $768.5 million over a five-to-seven-year period. In my opinion, this renders your study meaningless.

The primary point is this: If you want to know how much infrastructure will cost, why not ask the railroad? To me, this like wanting to set up a food truck in your neighbor’s driveway and planning everything around the business except not asking the neighbor if it is OK. This situation is highlighted best in this article:

https://www.up.com/aboutup/community/inside_track/freight-passenger-rail-better-partners.htm

The best lines from this article are: “Problems come when passenger agencies design routes and plans without including freight hosts, and then expect a rubber stamp after the plans have been publicly announced. They typically go on to apply unreasonable political pressure for freight railroad hosts simply to accept a flawed project, as is, or agree to inadequate compensation for use of valuable capacity on a privately owned rail network.” And this is the likely outcome if you issue a report based on 12-year old information upgraded by only considering inflation. This is one of the reasons I am bringing this up: I don’t want RPA to get a black eye down the road when the costs are dramatically different, as they will certainly be. (And we already have RPA’s Sean Jeans-Gail quoted in a New York Times article on January 24, 2021 ridiculously stating, A ballpark figure for the start-up cost of reinstituting new service along Montana’s southern route is $50 million for better signaling, upgrading track and station improvement”, so this followup by RPA is going to show - at best - rabid inconsistency.) And yes, it has been made it totally clear that this is not meant to be a comprehensive study, but in my opinion, there are certain essential elements required and this is one of them, and you don’t have the necessary information.

But there’s more: The 2009 Amtrak report on the North Coast Hiawatha documents a railroad between Fargo and Seattle that has changed dramatically in the ensuing 12 years. And not all for the worse – it’s just that little in the 2009 report is relevant today. One thing that is is the necessity to upgrade the “Coal Connector” in Fargo to give a North Coast Hiawatha access to the current Amtrak station. Another thing that has not changed is the need for improvements at Laurel (Montana) yard. The yard trackage there has been enhanced since 2009, but additional improvements will likely be required….but the 2009 report states, “Further analysis to make this determination will be required, and the cost of constructing such a track is not included in this estimate.” In other words, one cannot guestimate the cost of something in 2021 based on a 2009 report when that cost was NOT specified!

Beyond that, siding extensions (and even additional yard trackage at Glendive and Forsyth) have actually been built, and the entire railroad from Fargo to Jones Jct. is now CTC with remotely-controlled power switches. Also in this segment, freight traffic is in decline as most trains are loaded and empty coal trains destined primarily for Minnesota and Superior, Wisconsin (to transload into Great Lakes vessels). Minnesota has a plan to shudder some plants in the next 5 years, as does Detroit Edison, the primary recipient of the coal shipped through Superior. Will this mean fewer trains on the route in perpetuity? Only the answer BNSF gives matters, but historically speaking, the route can be used as an alternative to BNSF’s primary Northern Transcontinental route (used by the Empire Builder). An unknown is what BNSF might request to accommodate “combo” trains (coal loads and empties) now operating over 14,000 feet in length on the route.

Between Laurel and Seattle, BNSF (and MRL handling BNSF trains) is operating numerous trains eastbound well in excess of siding length (up to 14,000 feet). It’s important to remember that 2009 was in the midst of the “Great Recession”, so only what MRL says they require now is relevant to any cost estimate. But it is interesting that the 2009 document does not mention supplemental trackage, such as on two significant grades: Livingston to West End (Bozeman Pass) and Townsend to Winston (Winston Hill). MRL has made main train track and yard augmentations at Helena and between Helena and Mullan tunnel; this is the chokepoint of the railroad (21 miles of mostly 2.2% grade). Curvature will not allow a second main track (that hasn’t already been built) without a huge cost, but because of the grade and the number of unit trains (15,000 to 19,000 tons), the number of trains which can be accommodated in this segment is about 24 in a 24-hour period. MRL may request additional trackage, and sidings to accommodate the longer train lengths. As information, coal traffic is not expected to decline west of Laurel as all of it (except for a very few trains destined to Centralia, Washington and a power plant due to close in 2025) goes to export to Japan and Asia. Also, MRL is guaranteed a certain amount of traffic regardless of economic conditions (a unique situation in American railroading), so traffic flow will remain constant, and near capacity until this change.

Many of the upgrades requested in 2009 on MRL between Missoula and Sandpoint and between Sandpoint and Pasco on BNSF have been accomplished. But again, additional ones may be requested due to the longer trains. And west of Sandpoint, trains of excess length operate both ways. Due to the lesser grades on the Empire Builder route, BNSF operates 14,000-foot loaded trains westbound whereas eastward long trains operate on the MRL, many of which are empties (coal empties, grain empties). These long trains in each direction meet between Sandpoint and Pasco.

Operation on the Pasco-Auburn segment has changed dramatically since 2009. The statement, “Investment needs on this segment may be impacted by the recent removal of through freight traffic” in the report is in reference to the recession, and is even more irrelevant now than then. Since 2009, BNSF has created the “Iron Triangle” operating plan (in reference to crew rotation Auburn-Pasco-Vancouver-Auburn). With the exception of a weekday local between Pasco and Yakima, and locals at Yakima, ALL traffic between Auburn and Pasco is eastbound and one crew handles trains over the 228-mile crew district (in 2009, crews changed at Ellensburg), which, despite being basically a one-way railroad, is challenging because of the lack of block signals outside of CTC “islands” at the sidings, and numerous slow track conditions including a standing 20 MPH at the tunnel atop Stampede Pass. (Note: the reason that the railroad is one-way for empties is a combination of the grade – 2.2% each way – and that the tunnels were never raised or lowered to accommodate tri-level auto racks or doublestack equipment. The clearance restrictions don’t allow auto and stack trains; the grade requires more than twice the locomotive power as the route along the Columbia River via Wishram, and it’s significantly longer and slower for high-priority intermodal trains operating between Spokane and Seattle/Tacoma than the Wenatchee route.) A good number of the trains are combination grain empties (Grain trains are the number one commodity on BNSF in the Pacific Northwest by far), again about 14,000 feet in length, and only one location between Auburn and Pasco can accommodate a train of this length; therefore, I would expect the cost of upgrading this segment to increase beyond the inflation-adjusted amount in the 2009 study. (As an aside, this railroad can operate over a dozen eastbound trains in a 24-hour period, so with the long crew district, fluid meet/pass will be the driver behind infrastructure enhancement.) The salient point is that current operations on this segment have almost no resemblance to that on which the 2009 report is based.

Schedule

As stated, “The scope of our Research Note was not designed to adjust ridership projections on the basis of the perceived attractiveness of the schedule.

OK. But it should do that. And yes, again, I understand that the purpose of this research was not meant to be totally comprehensive, but there are certain components that are mandatory, and scheduling is one of them. For example, in 1977, Amtrak decided to radically change the schedule of the Empire Builder and North Coast Hiawatha to operate through Montana in the middle of the night. Ridership plummeted and it changed back at the next schedule change. Why do Fargo and Grand Forks in North Dakota have significantly less ridership than do Minot and Williston in the same state even though they’re much larger cities? Mostly, because the train times suck. Schedules have everything to do with attracting riders, and also affect crew districts, equipment utilization, and connections.

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When the RPA/BSPRA study was released in early October, 2021, it touted the expected huge economic ($271 million annually) and ridership (426,000 annually) benefits. This was to be expected, since nothing involving the IMPLAN model and RPA ever has expressed anything to the contrary (nor does it appear that RPA would ever be responsible for the accuracy of their product). Interesting components of this study were the statement of specific ridership numbers in each county, and the population base considered to create the data. This data specifically showed the study was without merit because it often did not coincide with actual demographics, and in cases where the proposed train would share stations with the existing Amtrak Empire Builder, the results were wildly different.

So, with all this in mind, I pitched an Op-Ed to the Glendive Ranger Review newspaper in Eastern Montana about my concerns with the study. Glendive has a long history of being an important railroad center, and would gain from the return of Amtrak service. It has also in the recent past suffered economic hardship due to cutbacks at BNSF. Knowing that RPA and/or BSPRA would respond, I hoped to gain more insight as to their vehement support of their study. The flaws I pointed out in the Op-Ed were largely directed at a Montana audience:

November 21, 2021 Glendive (Montana) Ranger Review

https://www.rangerreview.com/passenger-train-service-can-offer-many-benefits-rural-communities

The Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority (BSPRA) is a consortium of counties from Wibaux in Eastern Montana to Sanders in Northwest Montana who seek reinstatement of the North Coast Hiawatha (NCH) Amtrak passenger train which operated from Chicago to Seattle and was discontinued in October of 1979. While not all counties along the route belong to the BSPRA, Dawson, Custer, Wibaux and Prairie counties do. At the beginning of October of this year, BSPRA released the results of a study it commissioned with the Rail Passengers Association (RPA) to study revival of the NCH passenger service through Glendive.

Similar studies have been done elsewhere by RPA, and without exception, the result is always that the service would produce a huge economic benefit, and this is no exception. Both the RPA and BSPRA have touted the projected $271 million economic benefit and 426,000 passengers annually. With the signing of Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act by the President this week, the BSPRA is touting the study as a vehicle to obtaining some of the funding in the bill for resurrecting the North Coast Hiawatha.

It should be noted, however, that this study does NOT consider mandatory components such as train schedule, train equipment, amenities at stations, the number of stations, crew districts, required new mechanical facilities, track and signal infrastructure that would be demanded by host railroads, and crew districts along the route. Indeed, the host freight railroads were not consulted for the study. And it’s important to remember that after 42 years of no passenger trains, many of the components to making the service are no longer in existence, and will need to be added, likely at substantial expense. (A 2009 study pegged the cost for reviving the NCH service at over $1 billion without considering all station and track infrastructure costs.)

Though it is logical to dismiss the entire study simply based on all the necessary components which were ignored, a deep dive into the ridership figures in the study – and accepting them at face value – leaves one to wonder why the BSPRA (and its member counties) is touting this report, as it shows the train has little utility in the state of Montana. And while the overall ridership number is huge, there’s little consistency or logic in the numbers created. In fact, the average Montanan would roll his/her eyes over many of the ridership figures. For example:

*Only 13.8% of projected ridership is in Montana (which has 34% of the train’s route miles). Most of the ridership is concentrated in Washington, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.

*Medora, North Dakota is proposed as a stop for Theodore Roosevelt National Park, yet projected ridership is no more per capita than in Wibaux or Prairie counties.

*Ridership at an Arlee (population 641) would be 93% that of Missoula (population 73,489).

*Ridership at Missoula is only 71% that of Sandpoint, Idaho (population 9,931), and ridership at Sandpoint is to be 131% that of Spokane (metro population over 700.000).

*The Bozeman stop serves the largest tourist-oriented area in the state of Montana as well as its largest university and is correspondingly home to the busiest airport by far. But the study projects more ridership at Dickinson and Detroit Lakes than in Bozeman.

*Helena is projected to have more ridership than Missoula and Billings combined.

*Billings is projected to have only 46% of the ridership of Bismarck, ND.

One of the goals of the BSPRA in seeking to rein state the NCH is to serve more of Montana’s population, where the current Amtrak service on the Empire Builder (EB) route across Northern Montana does not. “The restored North Coast Hiawatha would have characteristics broadly similar to Amtrak’s Empire Builder, Texas Eagle and Sunset Limited routes, and our previous station-by-station work allowed us to generalize about likely passenger behavior on the restored North Coast route,” states the study. Yet, here’s how the restored NCH compares with the current Amtrak EB:

*The easternmost six counties along the NCH route in Montana (including Dawson) have 142% of the population of the easternmost three counties along the EB route, but projected ridership is only 93% that of the EB.

*While the counties through which the EB operates in Montana have only 31.4% of the population of the counties through which a reinstated NCH would traverse, actual EB ridership was 103% of that projected for the NCH. And the route through Southern Montana is about 100 miles further and would be hours longer.

*The Bozeman stop for Yellowstone National Park and the Big Sky Resort is projected to have only 86% of the ridership of East Glacier Park on the EB route (one of three stations for Glacier National Park), despite the East Glacier stop being open only 5 months of the year.

*Livingston in Park County could also be considered a stop for Yellowstone National Park. Havre in Hill County has little tourist draw. Both Park and Hill counties have about the same population, but EB ridership at Havre is 152% that projected at Livingston in the study.

*Missoula is projected to have ridership only 23.7% that of Whitefish.

*Williston on the EB route is very similar demographically to Dickinson on the NCH route (both Bakken Boom locations). Yet the projected ridership at Dickinson is only 43% that of Williston.

*Ridership at St. Paul/ Minneapolis is projected to be only 67% that of the EB; at Spokane, it’s only 30%, and at Seattle only 72%. But ridership for the NCH at Detroit Lakes, St. Cloud, Red Wing, Winona, Tomah, and Milwaukee respectively is projected to be a whopping 297%, 430%, 236%, 155%, 164%, and 318% that of the EB where they share the same route and stations.

Broadly similar? Not even close.

Clearly, this study is NOT one you’d want to see if you were a true proponent of returning rail passenger service in Southern Montana – but that’s not the intent. You’re just supposed to look at the big numbers.

Intercity passenger trains can offer many benefits to rural communities in states like Montana. Those benefits should be the focus, and not the contents of a study so flawed it lacks any real value.

The NCH study is available at: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/601b3c34 aabc2212d364dd39/t/6 168ad0dcaac9b26e3 4c5663/1634250007612/North +Coast+Hiawatha+Restorat ion.pdf

FY2019 Empire Builder ridership is indicated here: https://railpassengers.org/ site/assets/files/3441/25.pdf

(Amtrak lists station ridership is for both entraining or detraining passengers at each station, so the ridership indicated needs to be halved to avoid duplication.)

Mark Meyer is a native Montanan. He has been a passenger train advocate for over 50 years and worked for Burlington Northern and BNSF for over 40 years, including nearly 20 years managing locomotive power on BNSF’s North Region, including its route through Glendive. He can be reached at [email protected].

December 5, 2021 Glendive (Montana) Ranger Review

https://www.rangerreview.com/setting-record-straight-rail-service-benefits

The Rail Passengers Association and the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority take strong exception to Mark Meyer’s guest column published in the Nov. 21 issue of the Ranger-Review attacking our work to begin examining the potential economic benefits of restoring passenger rail service through southern Montana. His criticisms reflect neither an understanding of Rail Passengers’ modeling tools, capacities, and process, nor an appreciation of the scope of work to which all parties agreed (which was a joint effort between Rail Passengers, the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority, and Montana State University’s Western Transportation Institute). Instead, he seems determined not only to misunderstand and to mischaracterize the process and the results, but to spread his misunderstanding to the greater public.

Mr. Meyer contends that the Rail Passengers Association’s Research Note should include the level of detail associated with a NEPA Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) or perhaps a full-scale Operations Analysis like those railroads prepare in advance of new service. Both would be worthy endeavors. Indeed, they will be required before any North Coast Hiawatha restoration were to proceed. It is unrealistic, however, to advance to those stages without at least an initial assessment to characterize the potential economic benefits of a notional new service to see if there’s enough promise to justify further work. That is precisely what Rail Passengers’ Research Note has done, concluding that significant economic benefits could accrue to the states served if service is restored – more than $200 million each year, at a minimum.

His assertion that smaller communities can’t generate large numbers of passenger trips is off-base and not supported by the facts on the ground, or the passengers in the seats. There is a good and simple reason the ridership numbers in small communities will appear proportionately greater than those in large communities. Residents of small towns will find the passenger train to be an attractive option, particularly in winter, to secure health care and other goods and services only available in the larger cities. However, residents of large communities already have local access to those facilities and amenities and don’t need to travel by rail to access them. What Mr. Meyer finds puzzling and a source of criticism is, in fact, entirely sensible and one of the main reasons passenger rail has proven so essential to rural communities. It is also a phenomenon Rail Passengers has been monitoring for many years, underpinning many of the strongest arguments for investment in rail around the U.S.

As an example, there are some 40 Amtrak destinations around the country in which there are enough trips relative to the population so that the trips equal at least half (or nearly half) of the population within 25 miles of that station. Many of those stations actually produce at least as many trips as there are residents, and 15 of those communities produce more trips than residents. A handful produce twice or even three times as many trips as residents.

Chemult, Ore., produces 3.42 times as many trips as residents within 25 miles of the station. Williams Junction, Ariz., produces 2.36 times as many trips as residents within the catchment area. Stanley, N.D., produces nearly a third more trips than residents. And, of course, here in Montana, Malta produces nearly as many trips as residents and Cut Bank produces enough trips for more than half of all residents. Raton, N.M., produces 1.12 times as many trips as residents. In fact, of those 40 destinations, 28 serve populations of 250,000 or fewer, and 22 serve populations of less than 100,000. And yet taken together, those 40 stations generate enough passenger trips to equal some three-quarters of the total population served.

The Rail Passengers Association and Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority stand unequivocally behind the results reported in the Research Note on potential North Coast service restoration. The study methodology was developed with PhD experts credentialed in transportation planning, network analysis and pedestrian studies. Moreover, the Rail Passengers’ model is consciously not an operations analysis nor an EIS, because these kinds of studies and tools already exist. It is, instead, an assessment of broad community-level benefits from a given level of service, with the interaction of community-benefits variables modeled and developed through a careful and extensive literature review. This kind of broad socio-economic benefits assessment was generally unavailable to policymakers before Rail Passengers began publishing work using this model in 2018.

We eagerly await the next phase of this project, in which we can work to examine specific cities and towns for stations, to assess the network effects from connections to other modes of transportation at stations, and to begin to characterize the detailed investments that might be needed to launch new service on whatever route is eventually chosen. This is not a substitute for an operations analysis or NEPA EIS, but a complement to informed policymaking by those who will decide on the levels of investment required.

Dave Strohmaier is the chairman of the BSPRA and a Missoula County Commission. Jim Matthews is the preseident and CEO of the Rail Passenger Association.

I was not surprised in the RPA rebuttal (it was supposedly a joint effort with the BSPRA, but the talking points are irrefutably generic RPA). As expected, the rebuttal did not address any of the obvious discrepancies in the ridership figures. In his attempt to claim I didn’t understand the role of passenger trains to rural communities, Mr. Mathews completely ignored certain points in my Op-Ed, which varied wildly, were contrary to existing ridership patterns, and often underestimated rural ridership projected for the North Coast Hiawatha, such as:

  1. In Eastern Montana, the study claims ridership at Hysham, Forsyth, Miles City, Terry, Glendive, and Wibaux combined would be LESS than currently (FY2019) ridership on the Empire Builder route at Malta, Glasgow, and Wolf Point, even though the former set of station stops are in counties with a much greater combined population;
  2. That despite the constant drumbeat from the BSPRA about current Amtrak service in Montana (the Empire Builder) not serving Montana’s most-populous areas (in Southern Montana), the study showed (still) more ridership in Northern Montana.
  3. The North Coast Hiawatha would have no specific utility for tourism (or anything else), and indeed overall, the train would have minimal utility within the state of Montana.

These points – and many others – are verified within the study, which Messrs. Mathews and Strohmaier “stand unequivocally” behind. And I certainly expect to hold them to it, even though it casts a reinstated North Coast Hiawatha as less necessary than it could be.

And some observations from the rebuttal: As expected, Mr. Mathews reiterates that the study is not an operations analysis or an EIS. But a quick check at the BSPRA website and from press releases on the Internet (especially the information conveyed in the headlines), and it’s obvious the intent: To tout the projected $271 million in annual economic benefit and 426,000 projected riders, with barely a whispering caveat about all the mandatory aspects of the study which were ignored, and must and will be addressed in further studies, begging the question: Why, then even have this one with so much not considered?

Again, I understand that RPA will continue to claim that the IMPLAN model is not comprehensive and is just a precursor to other studies necessary in the future, but since the study makes conclusions which are based on infrastructure, schedule, station facilities, etc., the salient question for RPA must be: If all the things which are vital to the operation of a passenger train are not considered, in/at which plane of existence does the study’s North Coast Hiawatha exist? Obviously, it’s somewhat of a utopian fantasy as operational characteristics don’t matter, but I would challenge RPA to state what it is. Faster schedule than in years past? Slower? Staffed stations? Unstaffed? Platform only or heated shelter? Is it a train or does it “move” at all? Etc. etc. Even if it is not how the projection would be in a final evaluation of the service, at least people would have a idea of what to expect. With this study, no one can know.

And Amtrak history proves all these things really do matter. In the winter of 1977/1978, Amtrak ran the North Coast Hiawatha overnight in Montana and Wisconsin rather than on its traditional daytime schedule. Ridership plummeted. In the year before it was discontinued in 1979, Amtrak placed new equipment on its New York-Kansas City National Limited, and ridership rose significantly. In the mid-1980s, the Boston and Maine railroad decided to cease maintenance on its trackage between Springfield, MA and Windsor, VT causing timekeeping for Amtrak’s Montrealer to deteriorate to the point that the train was temporarily discontinued. In 2005, Amtrak dramatically improved onboard amenities aboard the Empire Builder, causing ridership to explode to the point that it was half-again higher than the second-most-ridden Amtrak long distance train at the time (the New York-Miami Silver Star). Additional examples abound, but the reality is that individual components will affect how many people use the service. This is very important for the proposed North Coast Hiawatha, which will be especially non-competitive with travel time compared to other modes. (Example: From Seattle to Billings, drive time is about 14 hours; the bus is 18 hours, and even with optimum infrastructure upgraded railroad infrastructure, a North Coast Hiawatha would be 24 hours.)

For the record, even though the study doesn’t consider mandatory operational and infrastructure parameters, the study does predict that the train would be one of the most cost-effective if part of the current Amtrak long-distance network (FY2019):

Train

Revenue ($millions)

Expense ($millions)

Cost recovery

Auto Train

78.1

84.8

92.1%

Palmetto

28.2

35.6

79.2%

North Coast Hiawatha Study

44.9

68

66%

Silver Meteor

41.9

76.7

54.6%

Silver Star

34.7

64.8

53.5%

Empire Builder

57.5

108.4

53%

Coast Starlight

46.6

89.2

52.2%

California Zephyr

55.5

112.1

49.5%

Lake Shore Limited

30.3

62

48.8%

Crescent

33.7

69.6

48.4%

Texas Eagle

25.4

54.7

46.4%

Southwest Chief

47

103.1

45.6%

Capitol Limited

20.3

44.6

45.5%

City of New Orleans

17.9

40.8

43.8%

Cardinal

8.4

24.4

34.4%

Sunset Limited

12

43.5

27.5%

Auto Train logically has a high cost-recovery with all the passengers traveling 100% of the distance. The Palmetto lacks any enhanced food service and carries no sleeping cars, which tend to add expense. Beyond those two trains, only four barely crack the 50% threshold, yet the North Coast Hiawatha recovers 66%. Granted, Amtrak accounting is often suspected of being overly burdensome for long distance trains, but given that Amtrak would be the operator of the North Coast Hiawatha, the same accounting methods should be used in comparison.

For ridership, the North Coast Hiawatha, compared to Amtrak long-distance trains in FY2019, is expected to be near the top:

Train

Ridership

Empire Builder

428,503

North Coast Hiawatha Study

426,384

Coast Starlight

421,191

California Zephyr

406,228

Silver Star

385,008

Lake Shore Limited

353,673

Silver Meteor

349,425

Palmetto

341,529

Southwest Chief

334,415

Texas Eagle

318,000

Crescent

291,820

Auto Train

236,039

City of New Orleans

232,979

Capitol Limited

207,291

Cardinal

107,700

Sunset Limited

91,774

Considering the stellar performance projected for the North Coast Hiawatha in cost recovery and ridership (relative to existing Amtrak trains), it begs the question: Why?

Remember, cost recovery is based mostly on….well….costs. And the model doesn’t take most of them into account. The ridership is eerily similar to that of the Empire Builder (the most-ridden Amtrak long-distance train), but not to exceed it. As will be discussed shortly, IMPLAN manipulates ridership by percentages instead of demographics, but it also uses questionable population input: There is never population of multiple counties considered at any one stop, and the population used in some instances is for a county that would not be the primary beneficiary of the stop. If the actual area or metro populations were fully considered for stations like Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis/St. Paul, St. Cloud, Fargo, Bismarck, Spokane, and Seattle, the ridership projection would increase significantly (by nearly 173,000 at the St. Paul/Minneapolis stop alone for the 5.5% multiplier, or by 17,500 for the 1.3% multiplier used for Seattle, Spokane, and Chicago). More on the multipliers to follow.

But let’s take the ridership of 426,384 at face value. We know how the individual stations create this number, but little beyond that. We also know the study claims “The restored North Coast Hiawatha would have characteristics broadly similar to Amtrak’s Empire Builder” (and other existing trains). But if that’s the case, then why is the North Coast Hiawatha’s cost recovery (66%) projected to be so much better than that of the Empire Builder (53%)? The Empire Builder has more route miles (2,581) than the North Coast Hiawatha via Dixon (2,556 miles) due to its Spokane-Portland section (no Portland section in the North Coast Hiawatha study), but overall fuel and personnel costs would likely be the same since the Empire Builder would likely be faster (based on historical operation), would require one fewer train inspection location and encounters milder grades. So, what projected components of the North Coast Hiawatha operation make it noticeably superior to all other Amtrak long-distance trains except for the Palmetto and Auto Train?

In a failed attempt to shift the focus of the debate from the inconsistent data in the report, Mr. Mathews cited six locations with exemplary ridership, in rural areas. My conclusion is that he knows little about the station beyond its profile. The stations are:

  1. Chemult, Oregon: Mathews touts trips at Chemult 3.42 times the population within 25 miles (again, direct from the RPA website https://railpassengers.org/site/assets/files/1808/cmo.pdf)

But: This isn’t where the ridership at Chemult comes from; it’s from La Pine (36 miles), Sunriver (52 miles), Bend (the biggest draw at 65 miles), and Redmond (82) miles – all areas of huge growth in the past 4 decades – with a good number of patrons using the guaranteed Amtrak Thruway bus connecting all these communities to Chemult and Amtrak’s Coast Starlight service. It’s also the stop for Crater Lake National Park. Pretty much zero to do with the population within 25 miles.

  1. Williams Jct., AZ: The claim here is that ridership is 2.36 times the population of the “catchment” area. In 2017, yes. In FY2018, it was only 59% of the population. And evidently Mr. Mathews didn’t notice that in 2019, 2020, 2021, and so far in FY2022, station ridership is ZERO percent of the “catchment” area. Reason? The stop was discontinued on January 1, 2018. Most patrons would take a shuttle van to the Grand Canyon Hotel and then ride the Grand Canyon Railway the next day (for train 3) or later that day (for train 4). The hotel discontinued the van service which made the Williams Jct. stop untenable. Two points are relevant here: First, this is an example of a station that was almost completely tourism-oriented, and since IMPLAN makes no accommodation for tourism (more on that to follow), it wouldn’t have accurately predicted the ridership here in any study. Secondly, this shows that without station infrastructure in place, and with train times in the middle of the night, ridership is adversely affected. In this case, when the shuttle van stopped, the existing infrastructure was deemed insufficient to maintain the stop (it’s out of town, with the access road not paved). These highlight why this RPA study - which included very little cost for station infrastructure and didn’t consider a schedule – is so flawed. And, it’s disingenuous to then speculate on ridership. (And downright weird to tout ridership at a station that’s been closed for years because its customer service characteristics were so poor.) As an aside, Amtrak patrons now access Grand Canyon with a Thruway bus from the Flagstaff station.
  2. Malta, MT: “Produces as many trips as residents” within 25 miles. Any Montanan can tell you that 25 miles is nothing in America’s fourth-largest state; in this case much of the ridership is tapped in the “within 50 miles” area mentioned in the document (9,847). Malta gets ridership from a vast area from the Canadian border to Lewistown, including the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation over 25 miles distant, which has a greater population itself than Malta or Phillips county.
  3. Cut Bank, MT: “Produces trips for more than half of all residents” (within 25 miles). This could be true if referencing the RPA station profile, as Mr. Mathews is doing. Except that the station profile is incorrect simply because another Amtrak stop – Shelby – with 3,000 people (similar in population to Cut Bank) is within 25 miles. Mr. Mathews would have been better served to mention Shelby and Wolf Point instead, since they both are much closer to having trip ridership matching nearby population. And along the Empire Builder route, Essex, Montana would actually be the ultimate example of a trip ridership/population ratio with its 3,408 riders and a population of 300 or so within 25 miles, contrary to the 10,779 showing in the station profile at the RPA website.
  4. Stanley, ND: “Produces nearly a third more trips than residents” (within 25 miles). True. Why is this? Well, a lot has to do with the Bakken Oil Boom, though it has waned through the late 2010s. The next station to the west - Williston – is a similar performer for the same reason with 29,916 passengers using that station in FY2019. Williston has a near carbon-copy sister city on the North Coast Hiawatha route – Dickinson – which has been demographically similar to Williston throughout the Bakken experience. And how did IMPLAN register this similarity? By forecasting a ridership of only 6,378, a mere 43% that of Williston. It’s difficult to see Mr. Mathew’s point about strong rural ridership when the IMPLAN model often misrepresents it.
  5. Raton, NM: Mr. Mathews claims Raton “produces 1.2 times as many trips as residents.” Like earlier examples, this claim is made because like the IMPLAN model, Mr. Mathews is only looking a snapshot of information, without cognition of actual demographic and geographic realities. In FY2019, the Southwest Chief logged 18,062 passengers, and the RPA website for Raton indicates 14,689 residents within 25 miles: https://railpassengers.org/site/assets/files/2382/rat.pdf ; 18,062 divided by 14,689 does indeed equal 1.2. But does Raton really generate 1.2 trips per the population within 25 miles? No, on two accounts. First of all, like the Cut Bank/Shelby scenario, population within 25 miles of Raton includes the Amtrak stop of Trinidad, Colorado. With a 2019 population (estimate) of 6,049 for Raton and 8,080 for Trinidad, the 14,689 is definitely in the ballpark for population within 25 miles of Raton, and coincidentally the Trinidad station profile shows a population of 14,304 within 25 miles, likely also including Raton. So, removing the city population of Trinidad from the Raton figure of 14,689, leaves basically the city population of Raton. If that was the case, ridership at Raton is nearly 3 trips for every local resident. But do locals use the service at much? No, because the primary draw in Amtrak patronage at Raton is its proximity to the Philmont Scout Ranch near Cimarron, NM about 46 miles southwest of Raton (beyond the 25 mile zone). So, this is an anomaly, not unlike a national park or proximity to larger population centers, as in the case in high ridership locations like Osceola, IA (stop for Des Moines), Newton, KS (stop for Wichita), and Shelby, MT (stop for Great Falls and Lethbridge).

So, in all these cases, there is, as Paul Harvey would have said, “The Rest of the Story” and it’s not as cut-and-dried as simply proclaiming relatively high usage at a rural location. But such generalizations without considering local demographic and geographic parameters doesn’t give a full picture of ridership and, as shown with Mr. Mathews’ examples, can be very flawed and misinterpreted. Exactly like: RPA’s IMPLAN model.

In what way? So, let’s take that FY2019 ridership of 18,062 for Raton, New Mexico and divide it in half as not to duplicate boardings/alightings at another station. The single origin station usage at Raton therefore is 9,031. Using the IMPLAN model in the North Coast Hiawatha Restoration Study (which also projects single origin station usage), what would ridership would it project? This is actually a known quantity: 2,424, some 6,607 fewer riders than what actually occurred, or about 27% of reality. How do we know what ridership would be projected and how do we know the number would be so fantastically inaccurate? It’s all in the beauty of IMPLAN.

IMPLAN ridership: Cookie Cutter mutlipliers

That Messrs. Mathews and Strohmaier “stand unequivocally” behind the study results notwithstanding, the ridership data in the North Coast Hiawatha Restoration Study is a disaster. On what planet would anyone accept ridership at Bozeman to be less than at Detroit Lakes, Minnesota? Where would it be OK to project ridership at Arlee to be almost equal to that of Missoula? Could Sandpoint really attract significantly more patrons than Spokane with its 11-fold population advantage? And if touting a second train between Fargo, St. Paul and Chicago, who would want ridership to be polar opposite than of the existing Empire Builder? No one, nowhere. But nonetheless, this is what is indicated in the study.

It’s easy to give IMPLAN too much credit. Certainly, I assumed, it must be geography-specific, and hopefully demography-specific. Even a model that ignores the realities of infrastructure, equipment, and scheduling must somehow compensate by focusing on demographics, which would be dramatically different along a route as long as the one from Chicago to Seattle. But this is not the case.

Below is a table again using the ridership and population numbers from the RPA study. When one divides the projected ridership by the county population considered, this in theory gives a ratio (or percentage) of the population using the train. For King County, the result is .013, meaning 1.3% of the residents are projected to use the train:

North Coast Hiawatha Projected Ridership:

(Ratio ridership divided by population.)

County

Station(s)

Population

Ridership

Ratio

King

Seattle, Auburn

2,252,782

30,406

.013

Kittitas

Cle Elum, Ellensburg

47,935

9,709

.203

Yakima

Yakima, Toppenish

250,873

13,852

.055

Benton

Prosser

204,390

11,285

.055

Franklin

Pasco, Connell

95,222

19,288

.203

Adams

Ritzville

20,220

4,096

.203

Spokane

Cheney, Spokane

522,798

7,056

.013

Bonner

Sandpoint

45,739

9,265

.203

Sanders

Thompson Falls, Plains

12,113

2,454

.203

Lake

Arlee

30,458

6,169

.203

Missoula

Missoula

119,600

6,604

.055

Granite

Drummond

3,379

684

.203

Lewis and Clark

Helena

69,432

14,064

.203

Broadwater

Townsend

6,237

1,263

.203

Gallatin

Bozeman

114,434

6,318

.055

Park

Livingston

16,606

3,364

.203

Sweet Grass

Big Timber

3,737

757

.203

Stillwater

Columbus

9,642

1,953

.203

Yellowstone

Billings

161,300

8,906

.055

Treasure

Hysham

696

141

.203

Rosebud

Forsyth

8,937

1,810

.203

Custer

Miles City

11,402

2,310

.203

Prairie

Terry

1,077

218

.203

Dawson

Glendive

8,613

1,745

.203

Wibaux

Wibaux

969

196

.203

Billings

Medora

928

188

.203

Stark

Dickinson

31,489

6,378

.203

Burleigh

Mandan/Bismarck

95,626

19,369

.203

Stutsman

Jamestown

20,704

4,194

.203

Barnes

Valley City

10,415

2,110

.203

Cass

Fargo

181,923

10,045

.055

Becker

Detroit Lakes

34,423

6,973

.203

Wadena

Staples

13,682

2,771

.203

Sherburne

St. Cloud

97,238

19,696

.203

Ramsey

St. Paul

550,321

30,386

.055

Goodhue

Red Wing

46,340

9,386

.203

Winona

Winona

50,484

10,226

.203

La Crosse

La Crosse

118,016

6,516

.055

Monroe

Tomah

46,253

9,386

.203

Juneau

Wisconsin Dells

26,687

5,406

.203

Columbia

Portage, Columbus

57,532

11,653

.203

Milwaukee

Milwaukee

945,726

38,293

.040

Cook

Glenview, Chicago

5,150,233

69,513

.013

Note the ratios. They are specifically uniform according to some kind of parameter. It appears that if a county has less than 100,000 people, it is assigned a ridership of 20.3% of the population; more than 100,000 to some higher number – possibly around 500,000 - assigned ridership is only 5.5% of population; for the very largest counties – say, over 500,000 in population – ridership is a mere 1.3%. (This is the case for King, Spokane, and Cook counties; Ramsey and Milwaukee counties are unexplained exceptions as Ramsey maintains its 5.5% and Milwaukee county is the only entry at 4%.) I don’t pretend to know the specific cutoff numbers, but with the exception of King, Spokane, Milwaukee, and Cook counties, ALL counties have a projected ridership of either 20.3% or 5.5% of the given county population. There is no allowance for ANY other demographic or geographic differences. So, to project the ridership at Raton, New Mexico, take the 2019 population of Colfax County (11,941) and multiply it by .203 (since the county has less than 100,000 people), and result is 2,424. And while Mr. Mathews touts riderships at rural communities being over 100% of the population, it’s interesting that NONE of the projections for the North Coast Hiawatha Restoration Study come even close to doing so. (The top percentage being 40.6%, or double the 20.3% to accommodate both entrainings and detrainings, or simply the total number of “trips” at a station.)

And this is why the study’s ridership numbers are so ridiculous, especially in counties just under 100,000 people compared to others: They have the highest percentage (20.3%) and the highest relative population. Someone with a modicum of knowledge about demographic geography might look at the stops in the Tri-Cities of Washington (Prosser and Pasco) and think they make some sense. Prosser has 11,285 with Pasco (and Connell) at 8,000 more. While that’s a lot of ridership at Prosser (even though it reflects the county, not the city), one might think it logical that Pasco would have higher ridership as it would capture most of the population of Pasco, Richland, and Kennewick, whereas Prosser would likely capture just a fraction of the Richland and Kennewick crowd for travel west from Prosser. But that’s not what’s going on at all. Pasco in Franklin county has just under 100,000 people at 95,000 and therefore it gets assigned a ridership of 20.3% of the county population whereas Prosser in Benton county with well over 100,000 people is assigned a ridership of only 5.5% of its population. So, while Franklin county (Pasco) has only 47% of the population of Benton county (Prosser), its percentage multiplier is 369% (20.3% vs. 5.5%) that of Benton county, and therefore it shows the higher ridership. In other words, ridership in counties of 100,000 residents or less is skewed in their favor by a factor of about 3.7.

Another example: Mandan/Bismarck uses Burleigh county’s population which is about the same as Franklin County, Washington and the stops of Pasco and Connell: About 95,000, but it’s still less than 100,000; Its multiplier is 20.3% which explains why Mandan/Bismarck has projected ridership greater than Fargo/Cass County. Cass county’s population is almost double that of Burleigh county, but its multiplier is only 5.5% (.055), or 27% of Burleigh county’s multiplier of 20.3%. With a significantly smaller multiplier, ridership is much larger at Mandan/Bismarck than at Fargo. It’s simply a numbers game without regard to any actual demographic trend.

But here’s another take on the Prosser/Pasco and Mandan/Bismarck examples: Currently, Benton and Franklin counties (and all of the Tri-Cities) is served by one stop, Pasco. If the IMPLAN model considered the population of both counties, but only the one stop as is the case now, the total population would be same, at 299,612 (the sum of the two counties). In this scenario, all the population – including that of Franklin county - which was projected at 20.3% - would be projected instead at 5.5%. The result is ridership for a single stop for Benton and Franklin counties of 16,478, much less than the IMPLAN projection of 30,573 for two stops.

It’s a similar situation for the proposed Mandan/Bismarck stop. Historically, both Mandan and Bismarck were station stops; but the IMPLAN model shows just one, and uses only the population for Burleigh county (Bismarck). However if, contrary to IMPLAN, one was to interject reality and consider both the population of Burleigh (Bismarck) and Morton (Mandan) counties together for a single stop, the combined population of 126,990 would change the multiplier (as it exceeds 100,000) from the study’s Burleigh-only 20.3% to 5.5% and reduce the ridership from the projected 19,369 to only 6,984, a whopping 64% decrease with the exact same population base! (I make no judgment as to whether the 5.5% or the 20.3% multiplier is the more realistic.)

The ridership and the process around determining ridership at St. Cloud, Minnesota is flawed like most other stations, but the gives insight into the ability to manipulate IMPLAN. St. Cloud straddles three counties. Most of the city is in Stearns County (population 161,075) where St. Cloud is the county seat; most of the rest of the population is in Benton County (population 40,889) where the Amtrak station is located; and a sliver of the city is in the extreme Northwest corner of Sherburne County (population 97,238). Most of the population of Sherburne County is in the Southeast portion of the county near the communities of Elk River and Big Lake and is tied to suburban Minneapolis. IMPLAN seems to be able to only consider one county at a time; in the case of the St. Cloud, Sherburne – the least likely to reflect usage by St. Cloud residents – was chosen. Why? I can only speculate, but the population of Sherburne County being close to but not exceeding the 100,000 threshold would result in a multiplier for ridership of the maximum in the study: 20.3%; Indeed, the ridership of 19,696 is about a fifth of the population of Sherburne County (but over four times the existing ridership of the Empire Builder at St. Cloud). Had the more logical counties comprising St. Cloud been used, ridership would have been dramatically lower:

8,859 for Stearns County (using the 5.5% multiplier) and 8,300 for Benton County (using the 20.3% multiplier). For whatever reason, the choice was made to use the county least demographically tied to the city of St. Cloud, but providing the maximum population with the maximum multiplier, dramatically skewing ridership.

Ridership at Shelby, Montana on the Empire Builder route is 97% of the population of Toole County. But the population of Toole County is insignificant to the area the station serves, located along Montana’s only north-south interstate highway and gathers ridership from both the Lethbridge, Alberta and Great Falls, Montana metro areas and locations in between. Similarly, Helena along the proposed North Coast Hiawatha is nearly the same distance from Great Falls and is along the same interstate highway as is Shelby. Contrary to the reality distant population using Amtrak service at Shelby, the RPA model doesn’t tap this potential at Helena. The ridership is a pure 20.3% of the county population and nothing else, ignoring similar patronage which could be garnered from Great Falls, as well as Butte and Anaconda (all major cities, by Montana standards).

The result of the uniformity of the multipliers means that ridership is skewed at every stop, one way or the other, and that there is NO consideration for local demographic parameters. Chicago and Seattle garner the same 1.3% ridership, though Chicago would certainly attract more through connections; neither is based on a population of the entire metro area as it should be. Missoula, Bozeman, and La Crosse are in counties with about the same population, and therefore their projected ridership is about the same, around 6300 to 6600. Compare that to airline boardings in FY2019 which reflect actual utility: Bozeman 785,585, Missoula 453,754, La Crosse 97,069. Obviously, airline boardings reflect strong tourist travel at Bozeman (proximity to Yellowstone National Park and the Big Sky Resort area), and to a lesser extent, Missoula, with both much greater than La Crosse. But IMPLAN recognizes nothing beyond simple population – in the eyes of IMPLAN, Bozeman and La Crosse are one in the same. These dramatic undercalculations of ridership at Missoula and Bozeman, and also at Billings, are the primary reason that the study shows the train having little utility within the state of Montana.

Below is a comparison table with Empire Builder ridership and population. Where the North Coast Hiawatha Restoration Study cherrypicks counties and population, and even places the station stops at Staples, St. Cloud, and Wisconsin Dells in the wrong county, the population and ridership indicated for the Empire Builder reflects actual population data served by the stop, as well as actual ridership as reported by Amtrak. Just for comparison purposes with the North Coast Hiawatha study, population is the immediate metro area for larger cities, and for the county for smaller cities, which means some population is still not considered (as in the aforementioned case of Shelby, Montana).

Empire Builder (Seattle section) FY 2019 Ridership:

(Ratio ridership divided by population.)

County

Station(s)

Population

Ridership

Ratio

King/Snohomish

Seattle, Edmonds, Everett

4,018,598

42,408

.011

Chelan/Douglas

Leavenworth, Wenatchee

120,629

10,534

.087

Grant

Ephrata

97,733

1,989

.020

Spokane/Kootenai

Spokane

734,218

23,461

.032

Bonner

Sandpoint

45,739

3,363

.015

Lincoln

Libby

20,099

2,725

.136

Flathead

Whitefish, West Glacier, Essex

103,880

32,469

.313

Glacier

East Glacier, Browning,

Cut Bank

13,701

9,002

.657

Toole

Shelby

4,709

4,565

.969

Hill

Havre

16,494

5,106

.310

Phillips

Malta

3,955

2,133

.539

Valley

Glasgow

7,390

2,376

.322

Roosevelt

Wolf Point

11,027

2,302

.210

Williams

Williston

40,950

14,958

.365

Ward

Minot

77,546

13,641

.176

Pierce

Rugby

3,975

1,984

.499

Ramsey

Devils Lake

11,519

2,064

.179

Grand Forks

Grand Forks

104,362

6,404

.061

Cass/Clay

Fargo

249,843

9,278

.037

Becker

Detroit Lakes

34,423

2,349

.068

Todd

Staples

24,664

3,007

.121

Foley/Stearns

St. Cloud

199,671

4,572

.022

MSP Metro

St. Paul

3,690,261

45,481

.012

Goodhue

Red Wing

46,340

3,980

.086

Winona

Winona

50,484

6,600

.131

La Crosse

La Crosse

118,016

12,794

.108

Monroe

Tomah

46,253

5,697

.123

Columbia/Sauk/

Juneau/Adams

Wisconsin Dells, Portage, Columbus

168,881

17,161

.102

Milwaukee Metro

Milwaukee

1,575,179

12,055

.008

Chicago Metro

Glenview, Chicago

9,641,105

70,759

.007

Where the current Empire Builder and proposed North Coast Hiawatha have stops in the same county, the North Coast Hiawatha study data is generally used, except in the many cases where it is known to be flawed: Seattle, Wenatchee, Spokane, Kalispell/Whitefish, Williston, Minot, Grand Forks, Fargo, St. Cloud, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Milwaukee and Chicago use known 2019 or 2020 population for metropolitan or micropolitan areas. Wisconsin Dells uses population for all four counties within its city limits.

Unlike the North Coast Hiawatha Restoration Study which lumps the multiplier ratio into three categories (with outliers at St. Paul and Milwaukee), the ratio of Empire Builder ridership to total population is all over the map, as it should be given that each station has its own demographic and geographic parameters to consider, NONE of which are considered by the RPA model. Most notably are locations like Spokane, Sandpoint, Libby, Grand Forks, Fargo, Detroit Lakes, and St. Cloud which suffer reduced ridership due to unpalatable train times; Glacier County, Montana, on the other hand, as a relatively high ratio due to its low population and high ridership to Glacier National Park. There’s a story behind every ridership figure when coupled with a logical representation of the population base served.

Again quoting the RPA study, “The restored North Coast Hiawatha would have characteristics broadly similar to Amtrak’s Empire Builder.” To see if that goal is achieved, here are two tables indicating actual Empire Builder ridership in FY2019 and projected North Coast Hiawatha ridership from the IMPLAN model at common stations:

Empire Builder (Seattle section) FY 2019 and North Coast Hiawatha projected ridership ratio at common stations: (Ratio ridership divided by population.)

County

Station(s)

EB ratio

NCH ratio

Determined by train

Seattle, Edmonds, Everett, Auburn

.011

.013

Determined by train

Cheney, Spokane

.032

.013

Bonner

Sandpoint

.015

.203

Determined by train

Fargo

.037

.055

Becker

Detroit Lakes

.068

.203

Determined by train

Staples

.121

.203

Determined by train

St. Cloud

.022

.203

Determined by train

St. Paul

.012

.055

Goodhue

Red Wing

.086

.203

Winona

Winona

.131

.203

La Crosse

La Crosse

.108

.055

Monroe

Tomah

.123

.203

Determined by train

Wisconsin Dells, Portage, Columbus

.102

Determined by train

Wisconsin Dells

.203

Determined by train

Portage, Columbus

.203

Determined by train

Milwaukee

.008

.040

Determined by train

Glenview, Chicago

.007

.013

Empire Builder (Seattle section) FY 2019 and North Coast Hiawatha projected ridership at common stations:

County

Station(s)

EB

NCH

Determined by train

Seattle, Edmonds, Everett, Auburn

42,408

30,406

Determined by train

Cheney, Spokane

23,461

7,056

Bonner

Sandpoint

3,363

9,265

Determined by train

Fargo

9,278

10,045

Becker

Detroit Lakes

2,349

6,973

Determined by train

Staples

3,007

2,771

Determined by train

St. Cloud

4,572

19,696

Determined by train

St. Paul

45,481

30,386

Goodhue

Red Wing

3,980

9,386

Winona

Winona

6,600

10,226

La Crosse

La Crosse

12,794

6,516

Monroe

Tomah

5,697

9,386

Determined by train

Wisconsin Dells, Portage, Columbus

17,161

Determined by train

Wisconsin Dells

5,406

Determined by train

Portage, Columbus

11,653

Determined by train

Milwaukee

12,055

38,293

Determined by train

Glenview, Chicago

70,759

69,513

The two trains’ ridership are only similar at a very few locations (which is most likely by random chance). North Coast Hiawatha ridership is understated (compared to the Empire Builder) at Seattle, Spokane, St. Paul, La Crosse, and Tomah. It’s vastly overstated at Sandpoint, Fargo, Detroit Lakes, St. Cloud, Red Wing, Winona, and Milwaukee. The study is highly detrimental to the effort for the “second train” from Chicago to St. Paul and efforts to extend it to Fargo. Where the Empire Builder would share stations with a reinstated North Coast Hiawatha, it is most desirable for the two services to show similar ridership projections since a disproportionate amount of total ridership for the trains will be from Chicago to St. Paul (and hopefully to Fargo) inclusive. For example, seven of the top ten destination for passengers from Tomah and Winona are to stations between Chicago and Fargo inclusive. When touting the advantages of multiple frequencies (and how doubling the service more than doubles ridership, for example), the goal is to project travel similar existing service and create a multiplier effect. The North Coast Hiawatha Restoration Study stymies this concept by projecting hugely distorted disproportionate ridership compared to the Empire Builder at most stops. The study’s ridership projections are also in stark contrast to the East-West Passenger Rail study commissioned by Washington State

https://leg.wa.gov/JTC/Documents/Studies/East%20West%20Rail/EastWestRail_FinalReportJune2020.pdf

In the end, the only logical conclusion is that the ridership – and with it, the accompanying economic benefit – is flawed. Undoubtedly, RPA and BSPRA will continue to dispute this because they “stand unequivocally” behind the study, for they have much to lose if acknowledging otherwise. Amtrak is receiving a record amount of money as a result of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021, which could result in numerous new passenger train routes being proposed. RPA wants to market their model as a way show a route’s viability (and without exception, their model always a huge economic boon). BSPRA needs affirmation. And the best part of the study is that both entities know they’ll never have to be measured on their projections.

From the perspective of the BSPRA, their “unequivocal” support of the study is puzzling given that it shows the proposed train would have little utility in Montana (and North Dakota), projecting that while 49% of the mileage for the North Coast Hiawatha is in those two states, they would produce only 24% of the riders. Or stated another way, those two states with half its route miles produce only a quarter of its riders. (For the Empire Builder, North Dakota and Montana have 42% of its route miles, and produce 26% of its riders.)

Here’s a different exchange in the Glendive paper in December, 2021. The first link is to an Op-Ed by Jason Stuart the Vice-Chairman of the BSPRA:

https://www.rangerreview.com/dcedc-improves-economic-vitality-and-quality-life-community

I thought he made some outrageous claims, so I penned this rebuttal:

https://www.rangerreview.com/passenger-rail-service-important-overstated-recent-guest-opinion

Questions? Concerns? Complaints? Contact me: [email protected]

--Mark Meyer (not representing any organization)