By Austin Amestoy and Victoria Traxler MONTANA PUBLIC RADIO
One of Montana’s passenger rail systems has been out of commission for decades, but some residents want to restore it across the southern part of the state. A listener wants to know what’s been happening with those efforts? Is more train travel in Montana’s future? Learn more in this edition of the Big Why.
Austin Amestoy: Welcome to the Big Why, a series from Montana Public Radio where we find out what we can discover together. I’m your host, Austin Amestoy. This is a show about listener powered reporting. We’ll answer questions large or small about anything under the Big Sky. By Montanans, for Montana. This is the Big Why.
Today we’re talking trains, specifically passenger trains and their past and potential future in Montana. And joining me now to dig into this topic is MTPR’s Victoria Traxler. Hey, Victoria.
Victoria Traxler: Hey, Austin. So great to be here for the first time.
Austin Amestoy: Well, it is great to have you. So, what exactly is the question we have today?
Victoria Traxler: So, an anonymous listener wanted to know what’s happening with efforts to restore passenger rail to southern Montana.
Austin Amestoy: Oh, I have heard a little bit about that. Like, if it happens, I could maybe hop on a train here in Missoula and take it all the way to Billings or beyond, right?
Victoria Traxler: Yeah. So, I think it’s best to start by getting to know a little bit of the history of the passenger rail in Montana. And I should say a passenger rail is basically just a train that hauls people rather than cargo.
Victoria Traxler: So trains showed up in the west in the 1860s and 1870s, mostly to transport resources like lumber and steel. But soon they began to move people, too. It’s also important to note here that trains bisecting the West were one of the forces that sped up the colonization of the region.
The first passenger train in Montana ran in 1880 between Ogden, Utah and Butte. And according to Dean Zook, the president of the Montana Museum of Railroad History, the industry took hold and it really changed the way people lived, moved and worked at the time.
Dean Zook: The history of the passenger trains in Montana is kind of a history of the railroads in general, because when the railroads did come into Montana in the 1880s, the railroad was the transportation method for everything.
Austin Amestoy: So what did Montana’s rail network look like back then?
Victoria Traxler: We had two main passenger routes run through the state. One that followed the Hi-Line, that one still exists today, and another running east to west in the southern half of the state, which ran a train called the North Coast Hiawatha. That one has been out of commission for decades and is the one that we think about when we talk about restoring rail travel here.
Austin Amestoy: Well, it sounds like trains were totally integral to the founding of Montana as we know it today. So what happened to them?
Victoria Traxler: Well, the short answer is war and technology. Zook told me that after World War II ended and rations for things like gas and tires were no longer in place, an explosion of other methods of transportation began.
Victoria Traxler: Highway systems were developed and commercial airlines were offering cheap, faster ways to get around the country. In 1970, Amtrak was formed to help relieve private railroads of their passenger duties because they were losing so much money on them. But by 1979, the U.S. Department of Transportation recommended Congress reduce the number of Amtrak routes that were active. And so, southern Montana said goodbye to its passenger trains.
Austin Amestoy: Wow. So, if we haven’t had passenger trains running through southern Montana since 1979, why are we here today over 40 years later talking about a potential restoration of that?
Victoria Traxler: So, from the people I spoke with as I researched this, it seemed like we saw some of the consequences of the reduction of passenger rail really come to light about 15 to 20 years ago. People were losing access to resources and marginalized and rural communities really felt it the most. One of the people I spoke with, Jim Mathews, president and CEO of the National Rail Passengers Association, said that he believes there’s a real opportunity to make this vision of passenger rail in southern Montana a reality again. And it comes in the form of the 2021 federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. That bill offers $102 billion in total railway funding. And today, he said, the potential economic benefits of rail travel are really recapturing the government’s attention.
Jim Mathews: For the longest time, unfortunately, the arguments that were made were primarily nostalgic. But you don’t get a $100 billion check from the Congress because something was nice. You know, you have to show why this is important. And that’s, I think, what started the change.
Austin Amestoy: That’s really interesting. So, it seems like there’s public support, a big pot of federal money and an opportunity. So, now how does that all culminate into a passenger train running again in southern Montana?
Victoria Traxler: So as people began to call for restoring passenger rail across the country, that effort began formally in Montana about three years ago, and it came in the form of the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority.
Austin Amestoy: I’m not sure I’ve heard of that group. Who are they?
Victoria Traxler: So, they’re government subdivision made up of over a dozen Montana counties, along with some other invested parties. It’s an official authority focused on developing and operating passenger rail services in the state. Their proposed route runs through southern Montana, same as the old North Coast Hiawatha one, with some additions. The chair of the authority and Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier has a lot to say about how the service would benefit Montanans.
Dave Strohmaier: We have communities across the state who jumped on board because they wanted transportation options. They were looking for ways to revitalize their main streets and communities economically. And the fact is, passenger rail is a much more efficient way to move people than any other mode of transportation.
Victoria Traxler: Martin Charlo, council secretary for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, who’s also working with the Big Sky Rail Authority, said he does wrestle with the historical impacts of these trains, how they sped up the displacement of Indigenous people. But he’s also hopeful about the changes they can bring tribal communities.
Martin Charlo: Yeah, expansion of the West was definitely made a lot quicker with the rail and everything, transcontinental on the route and everything. It is a difficult balance, but you know, kind of my making lemonade out of lemons is that, you know, we have an opportunity here now to help our people and then use something that was kind of detrimental to our people as a positive.
Victoria Traxler: He says today, a passenger rail service would mean connectivity that rural areas desperately need to see loved ones, provide other options of getting around for the elderly and those with disabilities, to improve access to health care services. Really, to make the world smaller, as he put it.
Austin Amestoy: So, how can some of those federal funds make it to Montana?
Victoria Traxler: So, because of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Congress has available funding dedicated to this issue. And right now, the Federal Railroad Administration is doing studies to see where that money is best allocated. And then they’ll make a list of recommendations of routes to restore or improve and give that list to Congress by the end of this year. Strohmaier says he thinks Montana has a really good shot at being on that list.
Austin Amestoy: All right. Well, that sounds promising. Now, if we do get funding, would we ever see a train actually run?
Victoria Traxler: That’s the tricky part. When I asked these guys if everything from here on out went perfectly, when might we see a passenger train run, well, the earliest guess I got was six years. The second was 15. And another just hoped it would happen during his lifetime.
Austin Amestoy: Well, that seems a little bit less promising.
Victoria Traxler: It’s definitely going to be a long process either way. But I’ll let Strohmaier speak for why he thinks this perspective is really the greatest obstacle facing Montana.
Dave Strohmaier: If we can fly a helicopter on the face of Mars, for crying out loud, we can figure out how to restore passenger rail.
Austin Amestoy: So while these big studies and such are underway, are there any other steps happening on the ground in the short term?
Victoria Traxler: Well, the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority has been hosting a series of community meetings across the state this spring and has more planning meetings throughout the summer. If you’re curious about the latest updates, you can check their website, bigskyrail.org
Austin Amestoy: Well, great. Thank you so much, Victoria, for filling us in.
Victoria Traxler: Any time.