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There could be light at the end of the tunnel for the flood-damaged Central Montana Railroad, which expects a government aid announcement on Thursday.

Sidetracked by a trestle-twisting flood in 2011, the Denton-based railroad will receive $4 million in federal grants to restore service, according to Montana Gov. Steve Bullock’s office.

Bullock and a representative of the U.S. Economic Development Administration will meet with Lewistown-area residents at noon on Thursday to announce the grants.

The U.S. EDA is a source for Disaster Relief Opportunity funds available to local governments, private universities and nonprofit organizations located in disaster areas designated between Oct. 1, 2010 and Sept. 30, 2011.

Central Montana Railroad Manager Carla Allen was not available on Wednesday for comment.

For 20 years, Central Montana Railroad was an economic engine for an 87-mile stretch of track that Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway wouldn’t service. CMR grain trains kept elevators viable in Denton and Geraldine, which in turn kept those communities from joining other Montana towns shuttered by rail abandonment.

Then two years ago this month, floodwaters stirred the normally lazy Judith River into a rampage, which twisted and slumped the CMR’s main trestle. Grain trains haven’t rolled across the damaged line for two harvests.

Without the train, farmers resorted to hauling their grain 70 miles or more roundtrip to elevators served by BNSF in Moore or Moccasin. Money lost to trucking cost the farmers stranded along the CMR about $1 million a year.

The Central Montana Railroad was created in the early 1980s to fill a void created by the 1980 bankruptcy of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad, the original occupier of the line. When the Milwaukee Railroad folded, BNSF briefly took over the line between Geraldine and Lewistown, as it did with several other old Milwaukee Road routes.

But BNSF quickly dropped the line. Montana sued BNSF for its abandonment of rail service the state considered essential. The two parties settled on BNSF paying $250 per grain car shipped, an amount the state forwarded to the nonprofit Central Montana Railroad.

Eventually, BNSF stopped paying for the CMR grain cars and the state again sued in 2009. Bullock was Montana’s attorney general when the 2009 lawsuit was filed.

Bullock and U.S. EDA Deputy Assistant Secretary Matt Erskine will meet with Lewistown-area residents at 12:15 p.m. Thursday at Jack’s Hangar, located at Lewistown Municipal Airport.

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Agriculture and Politics Reporter

Politics and agriculture reporter for The Billings Gazette.