New route picked for Montana's Tongue River Railroad

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BILLINGS, Mont. – A new route for the proposed Tongue River Railroad in Montana would shorten its route from 83 miles to 42 miles, the Associated Press reports. Instead of an 83-mile line linking to BNSF at Miles City the new route would connect to BNSF at Colstrip to reach a proposed coalmine near Ashland, Mont. The cost of the new line also has dropped from previous estimates of $490 million to roughly $416 million.

BNSF, Arch Coal, Inc., and billionaire Forrest Mars Jr., bought the long-stalled railroad project last year following decades of delays due to court challenges and financing hurdles. It’s intended to carry up to 20 million tons of coal annually from Arch’s proposed Otter Creek mine to West Coast ports, where the coal would be loaded onto ships for export to Asia.

Approval from the Surface Transportation Board is needed before construction can begin, and a revised application for the project has been submitted to the board. The STB held public meetings on the proposed railroad in November, and recently extended the initial public comment period on the proposal until Jan. 11.

The Colstrip route had been considered in the past, but was rejected due to the steeper grades that trains would have to surmount to move loads out of the Powder River Basin along the Montana-Wyoming border. BNSF said it now believes the route is feasible, in part because of the use of distributed power units to move trains over the grades. Under the STB’s environmental review process, the Colstrip route will be one of several alternative alignments considered.

In an application for the project submitted in October, the railroad relied in part on information from the original proposal for the line from 1983. The Surface Transportation Board said in a Nov. 1 decision that it wanted up-to-date information, including more details on the line’s ownership structure.
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