The Virtues of Passenger Rail for Rural America

You’d have to be of a certain age to remember what it was like to have passenger rail service on the southern route through Montana. But if you ever got a chance to ride those rails 50 years ago, the memory of enjoying an absolutely beautiful, effortless, and relaxed trip across Montana’s vast expanses of prairie, mountains, and majestic river valleys probably still brings a smile to your face.

The good news is we may see passenger service return on the southern route — which would be a boon for all Montanans.

A recent study, done by the Rail Passengers Association at the request of the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority, found restoring passenger service to the once-famed North Coast Hiawatha Trail would serve 426,000 passengers annually.

As Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier, the chair of the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority, told reporters last week: “With some of the best long-distance route ridership numbers in the nation and projected economic benefits of over $270 million annually between Chicago and Seattle, this route would be economically and socially transformational for urban, rural, and tribal communities in Montana and throughout the Greater Northwest Region.”

Montana’s Senator Jon Tester added: “Passenger rail creates jobs and grows the economy across Montana and is critical to keeping families and businesses across our state connected. The benefits of passenger rail are clear, and as we work to meet the infrastructure needs of the 21st century, I will continue fighting to expand affordable and accessible passenger rail service throughout the Treasure State.”

Of course the positive economic benefits of restoring the southern route are important, but there are many more advantages than profiting from tourists traveling between Chicago and Seattle.

As Montanans know, we still have winter here. Despite earlier springs and longer summers brought on by global warming, howling snowstorms with zero visibility, black ice-covered highways, and frigid temperatures are common for months on end.

Since the vast majority of Montana’s population lives along the southern route, being able to take a beautiful and relaxing trip between our major cities instead of a white-knuckle drive is a no-brainer. Montanans used the southern rail line all the time in the past and given the opportunity to do so again, you can bet our aging population will be all aboard.

The simple truth is the southern route follows some of Montana’s most iconic rivers on its way through the state. Can’t go wrong cruising in the observation car along the Yellowstone River — which just happens to be the longest un-dammed river in the Lower 48 — from Glendive to Livingston. A quick trip over the Bozeman Pass and suddenly you’re in the mountain-bound Gallatin Valley, following the river for which it was named to where the confluence of the Gallatin, Madison, and Jefferson rivers give birth to the mighty Missouri River. Once over the Continental Divide you follow the Clark Fork from its headwaters in Butte to where it exits Montana as our largest river — and not one mile along the route is anything but the spectacular mountains, forests, and lush valleys for which the Big Sky State is justifiably world-famous.

Finally, there’s at least one more significant benefit to restoring passenger service on the southern route — there’s no political affiliation involved. Democrats, Republicans, and Independents can all find plenty of reasons to lend support. Not only would it unify our state with enhanced, safe, transportation opportunities, but it just might bring our warring politicians together to benefit their constituents — and that would be a truly great notion.

George Ochenski is a columnist for the Daily Montanan, where this essay originally appeared.