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Coal train cars

Coal train cars stop on tracks in Billings on June 28, 2012.

BUTTE – A legislative interim committee has a suggestion for communities apprehensive about additional train traffic that could result from possible increases in coal shipments from Montana and Wyoming to the West Coast: route the trains through Butte.

In letters last week to Montana Rail Link and Burlington Northern Santa Fe, the state Energy and Telecommunications Interim Committee suggested the now inactive Homestake Pass line, running from Garrison to Logan via Butte, could be pressed into service to accommodate coal trains or other rail traffic.

“We see the Homestake Pass Line as a viable option to alleviate concerns raised by some communities about increased rail traffic,” the letter, signed by committee Chairman Sen. Alan Olson, R-Roundup, and Sen. Jim Keane, D-Butte, reads. “The community of Butte would welcome the opportunity to learn more about putting this line back into action.”

The letters say the communities of Billings, Bozeman, Helena and Missoula “continue to discuss and debate” the possible effects of increases in traffic that could result from new port expansions planned on the West Coast with an eye to increase exports to Asia of coal mined in Wyoming and eastern Montana.

Keane, who proposed the letters, said that one of the biggest bottlenecks for MRL rail traffic is in the Helena area, and a third Montana rail crossing of the Continental Divide (in addition to Mullan Pass near Helena and Marias Pass south of Glacier National Park) would help move more Montana coal to the coast.

“This is a way to possibly increase capacity,” he said Monday. “I think it’s a very viable solution.”

The Homestake Pass line was built in the 1880s by the Northern Pacific Railway and has been inactive since the early 1980s, the committee’s letter says. It’s now owned by BNSF.

If the Homestake route were restored, trains on it would still pass through Bozeman, Billings and Missoula.

The Helena City Commission voted June 4 to send a letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has the authority to permit the port expansions, asking it to consider the effects of the port expansions on Helena when it analyzes the projects. The Missoula City Council sent a similar letter.

The interim committee also voted last week to send a letter to the Corps with an opposite request, opposing efforts to expand the environmental review to include effects on communities far away from the ports themselves.

The committee voted 5-2 to send the letters to the railways, with Sen. Verdell Jackson, R-Kalispell, and Reps. Harry Klock, R-Harlowton, and Austin Knudsen, R-Culbertson, joining Olson and Keane on the matter. Sen. Cliff Larsen, D-Missoula, and Rep. Robyn Driscoll, D-Billings, voted against the measure. The other member of the committee, Rep. Tony Belcourt, D-Box Elder, was not present.

The committee voted 6-1 to send the Corps letter, with Driscoll supporting it.

A representative of MRL said Monday it would be inappropriate for the company to speculate on the future of the line owned by BNSF.

BNSF did not respond to a request for comment.

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