MISSOULA, Mont. (CN) — More than 40 years have passed since travelers last rode the rails through southern Montana. In the meantime, Montana's roads have gotten busier while it's become increasingly clear that vehicle emissions must be drastically reduced to have any chance of averting the worst effects of climate change. Arguing that the time has come for cleaner, easier transportation, Montanans are trying to drum up enough money and clout to revive the passenger line.
In mid-July, that effort got a big boost when the Montana Department of Transportation signed on as a member of the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority. The department joins Amtrak, the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railway, three Montana Indian reservations and 18 of 26 counties along the proposed line, in backing the almost two-year effort to bring passenger trains back to some of the more populated towns of the Treasure State.
“Neither BNSF nor Amtrak would be at the table if this were perceived as a flash in the pan or not a serious effort," said Dave Strohmaier, Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority chair. "The Montana DOT is an important player because we are talking about transportation. I think it’s an important signal to the credibility of the rail authority.’”
The North Coast Hiawatha route used to carry passengers between Chicago and Seattle, passing though hundreds of miles of uninterrupted prairie in sparsely populated North Dakota and Montana. Amtrak took over in 1971, and a few years later, an interstate highway was completed paralleling the same route, supposedly creating less need for a train. The Hiawatha already had some of the lowest ridership and revenue recovery of Amtrak’s lines. Still, towns along Montana’s southern line were disappointed to learn in 1978 that they’d probably lose passenger service.
A year later, Congress pulled the North Coast Hiawatha from Amtrak’s system in favor of the Empire Builder, which provides similar passenger service across the remote and even less populated northern portion of the western U.S. But it’s not convenient for people in Billings, Bozeman or Missoula to drive three to five hours north to catch that train. So, as those towns have grown, along with concerns about climate change, people have increasingly called for restoration of the southern line.
Paulette Keifer recently moved from Oregon to Glendive at far eastern end of Montana's section of the Hiawatha route. With the closest large airport being a 3-hour drive away in Billings, it's hard for her to see family.
"Wish there was a train for people to come to Glendive. I have family who would come from Oregon to visit just to ride the train," Keifer said.
“Montanans typically have one mode of interstate travel, the automobile,” said Paul Pacini of Helena. “A significant number of Montanans do not have access to a car because of a disability, age, legal restrictions, or income. They find themselves literally stranded in their homes. We desperately need other transportation options.”
Strohmaier has watched since the early 2000s as attempts to promote passenger rail surged and then died. As a Missoula City Council member and now a Missoula County commissioner, he’s racked his brain to find a solution.
“I came to the conclusion when I started as a county commissioner that we’re just not getting anywhere. Trying the same thing and expecting different results is not getting the job done. Isolated communities passing resolutions to affirm their support of passenger rail in this kind of siloed fashion also is not getting the job done,” Strohmaier said in February 2021. “But it occurred to me that the one thing that is contiguous across the entire state are counties. Is there a mechanism in state law that would allow counties to come together and create some sort of a special district that would further our goals?”