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All Aboard

Thirty years after Amtrak derailed the North Coast Hiawatha, Missoulians organize to get it back on track


Warren McGee, a wily 95-year-old from Livingston who worked as a railroad conductor for 40 years, spoke up in a room of train buffs and offered his idea for how to revive passenger rail service in southern Montana.

“Maybe we should bring some of those old rails under the Endangered Species Act!” he hollered.

To which Jim Lynch, director of the Montana Department of Transportation (MDOT), quipped, “Well, I can see by some of the passengers here we might even qualify.”

Indeed, the group of 80 or so that gathered last month in Essex, Mont., for the annual National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP) Northwest Region Conference was noticeably aged. Lynch called them a bunch of “gray hairs.” Instead of the young alternative transportation set one might expect for a discussion on the importance of passenger trains, it was attended by old-timers wearing railroad leather jackets and caps.

That’s not to say the group lacked enthusiasm. Virginia Sloan, a field director for Sen. Jon Tester, attended the meeting and extolled NARP  and other regional passenger rail advocacy groups for their unparalleled passion.

“It is noted,” she said. “You seem to be vocal, organized, and not very often do you see the relationship with multiple states really champion to the same cause.”

The spirited NARP meeting included members from Montana, Washington and Oregon, many of whom rode in on Amtrak’s Empire Builder, the northern Montana route that stops at the front door of the Izaak Walton Inn, a lodge constructed on the edge of Glacier National Park by the Great Northern Railroad in 1939.

The lodge stands as a Mecca for trainiacs, a veritable museum memorializing the history of the country’s rail systems. Railroad photographs and insignia cover the walls floor to ceiling. Lamps and door handles were welded from railroad spikes. Guests wave to trains rolling by and conductors honk in reply.

Within that history, America’s abandonment of passenger rail routes stands out as train advocates’ greatest lament. As Lynch said, “Without a lot of foresight, we allowed a very important piece of our heritage in this country—and something that could carry us into the future—slip away.”

But while strategizing at the Izaak Walton Inn, this group didn’t focus as much on what was, but what could be. They’re part of a growing effort to restore Amtrak’s North Coast Hiawatha route, which, until 30 years ago, ran between Seattle and Chicago via Missoula, Bozeman and Billings.

The movement to bring passenger rail service back to southern Montana has picked up steam in recent months, fueled by a president committed
to railroad expansion—the first since Abraham Lincoln, some say—as well as a supportive Montana congressional delegation and state governor.

Advocates at the meeting say a long- distance Amtrak train running through southern Montana would serve as an environmentally-friendly intrastate and national mode of
transportation, provide tourists access to Yellowstone National Park and the region’s burgeoning cities, give University of Montana and Montana State University students a means of returning home, and create jobs across the state through its restoration and long-term operation and maintenance. And despite major funding and logistical hurdles standing in the way of reviving the route, these trainiacs believe now’s their best chance to get everyone on board with the idea.

Laying the tracks

The first spike in the possible revival of the North Coast Hiawatha was driven, some say, by an unlikely champion. In fall 2008, President George W. Bush signed the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act, which authorized $13 billion in funding for Amtrak over five years, a boon for the beleaguered government-owned corporation. More importantly to local rail supporters, the bill included a measure written by Montana Sen. Jon Tester directing Amtrak to study the feasibility of restoring its abandoned route through southern Montana.

Thanks for the measure may also go to Missoula City Councilmember Dave Strohmaier. The passionate train advocate met with Tester in Washington, D.C., to make his case for more service in Montana just before the Senate debated the bill.

“It happened the same day I was there, right after we met, so I hope that my bit of encouragement from the Missoula City Council standpoint played some role in his decision,” Strohmaier says. “That was the work at the federal level that I think was really critical to setting the stage for everything that would come after it, because getting a feasibility study done is absolutely essential to know what we’re up against here.”

The feasibility study galvanized the campaign to bring Amtrak service back to southern Montana. Strohmaier and fellow organizer Michael Ackley have been at the forefront of a statewide grassroots effort based largely in Missoula.

For instance, Strohmaier initiated the signing of multiple city resolutions, as well as a joint resolution with the Missoula Board of County Commissioners and the Chamber of Commerce in support of local passenger rail service. One of the city resolutions backed Senate Bill 9, key legislation introduced by state Sen. Ron Erickson, D-Missoula, which authorizes local governments to issue revenue bonds to fund public transportation systems like passenger rail. The bill, which currently awaits the governor’s signature, would help Montana communities pay for ancillary services like train stations.

“People are interested, that’s not a problem,” says Ackley, a local painting contractor who started lobbying for the southern route’s return eight years ago. “We don’t have to go drum up support for this. It’s a non-partisan issue. It’s not a Democrat or Republican thing.”

Recently, Strohmaier and Ackley have organized public events to help further their cause, such as the April 8 “Rally for Rail” at the University of Montana. The event drew dozens to sign a banner thanking Tester for his commitment to passenger rail. They’ve planned another event for National Train Day, May 9, at Missoula’s original Northern Pacific train depot.

“I have a pretty keen interest in sustainable modes of transportation,” explains Strohmaier of his enthusiasm on the issue. As he talks in his office at Missoula’s Historical Research Associates, he overlooks the old tracks of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad, better known as the Milwaukee Road. Strohmaier says our history is inextricably linked to the arrival of the transcontinental railways, and he believes our future may be tied to them, as well.

“From what I’ve seen in terms of efficiencies per passenger-mile and the fuel savings that might be  achieved from passenger rail versus single-occupancy motor vehicles or even airline transportation,” he says, “rail offers some real environmental advantages.”

He’s not the only one who sees the possibilities. In addition to Amtrak’s feasibility study—due to be completed by October—the Obama administration’s demonstrated dedication to passenger rail has local backers more optimistic than ever. The economic stimulus package set aside $1.3 billion for Amtrak and $8 billion for high-speed rail, and there’s $5 billion more in Obama’s proposed budget. None of the money will likely make it to Montana.

“However, I think what it tells me,” Strohmaier says, “is there’s a commitment to taking passenger rail seriously. So even if we’re not able to avail ourselves of this pot of money, I think there’s a long-term commitment to rail and it’s an opportunity for a more sustainable mode of transportation.”

The stars are starting to align, though any forward movement hinges on the findings of Amtrak’s feasibility study due to Congress in October.

Amtrak’s Marc Magliari explains the study will estimate how many people would use the new route, the substantial costs needed to improve the track and the operating budget. “And in the end,” he says, “Congress will decide what to do going forward. That’s how the system works.”

Amtrak will “piggyback” the congressionally mandated study onto state studies already underway, Magliari says. As part of  MDOT’s update of the state rail plan, it asked Amtrak to
examine possible routes between Missoula and Billings and, beyond that, Sandpoint, Idaho, to Williston, N.D.

“Whether all that trackage from 1979 is still there and/or in a reasonable condition to host passenger trains, I can’t say right now,” Magliari says, “but that’s one of the things we’re looking at.”

Amtrak’s investigating the status of the route by rolling hi-rail vehicles—essentially pickups equipped with railroad wheels—along the track from one end of Montana to the other.

“The best case scenario is that sometime this year the studies come out and we have some hard numbers before us in terms of what it’s going to take to make this happen, and then your guess is as good as mine,” says Strohmaier. “I think what this requires…is a grassroots effort. What I’ve discovered here in Missoula is representative of politics at all levels, and that is unless elected officials hear from folks, and hear something is a concern, you can assume the status quo. Our congressional delegation, our state legislator and local elected officials all need to hear this is a priority for folks.”

Hiawatha derailed

Missoulians enjoyed passenger rail service for almost 100 years, beginning when Northern Pacific built rail through Missoula in 1883, and ending with Amtrak’s decision to discontinue its North Coast Hiawatha route in 1979.

Historian Bill Taylor has most of the era documented in a stockpile of photographs, postcards and other collectables at his Missoula home. An antique railroad signal lamp and red and white striped railroad sign stand in his front yard. He and his wife Jan have turned their interest in passenger rails into four published books about Northern Pacific’s history in Montana.

Taylor says the highpoint of local passenger train traffic occurred in about 1929. A nationwide erosion in ridership followed World War II with the creation of the Interstate Highway System, cheap gas and air travel, all of which “just blew the railroads out of the water,” he says.

“By the time you get into the 1960s,” he says, “what you’re seeing is a general desire on the part of the private railroad companies to get rid of passenger service altogether. The truth is passenger service was always a losing proposition. From 1929 on, there were very few passenger trains that made a profit.”

The National Railroad Passenger Corporation, which operates as Amtrak, formed in 1971 as a result of political pressure to relieve railroad companies’ financial burden of running unprofitable trains, Taylor explains. Amtrak took over operation of passenger trains and reduced or discontinued service. For example, the two trains that ran through Missoula—the North Coast Limited and the Mainstreeter—were essentially combined into the North Coast Hiawatha.

“Amtrak, I don’t think, was ever intended to survive,” Taylor says. “I think what Congress saw it as was a way to take the onus of abandonments off of the private railroad that, within five or six years, could just be allowed to die a natural death, and everybody was going to go by car or airplane.”

Amtrak didn’t die but Congress has forced it, repeatedly, to tighten its belt. In 1979 the North Coast Hiawatha succumbed. With the train running just three days a week, service was poor and ridership was down. While southern Montana’s route dried up, the northern Empire Builder survived.

“The rationale for leaving the train on the Hi-Line was that, a, it was the fastest way through Montana, and, b, it serviced a number of communities up there which did not have other forms of public transportation,” Taylor says.

The North Coast Hiawatha, though, still had its supporters.

An October 7, 1979 editorial in the Bozeman Chronicle titled “Sham-trak” says the North Coast Hiawatha came within a fraction of meeting criteria for continued service. It needed 150 passengers per mile; it had 149.

“To be sure the train was losing money,” the editorial read. “All passenger trains around the world lose money. In countries such as Japan, the trains keep running since it is cheaper to subsidize the train than to build massive highway projects.

“The money the Hiawatha lost will go into fuel tanks and the pockets of Arab countries. Now that makes sense, if you don’t know what you’re doing.

“All this is happening as the president [Jimmy Carter] talks about fuel conservation, and using public transportation.”

Pat Williams served as a freshman U.S. congressman in 1979. As he remembers it, the outcry over the route’s discontinuation was mild. And the letters he did receive suggested support for the route was not directly linked to ridership.

“I compared the number of petition signatures and the number of letters with the number of people that were actually riding the southern route,” he says, “and I had three times as many signatures as people who were actually buying tickets.”

Still, Williams tried to revive the route in the 1980s. But that last attempt–a proposed multi-state and federal effort– stalled in committee in the Montana Legislature, he recalls, because it was too expensive.

With the North Coast Hiawatha now inactive for 30 years, the Empire Builder stands out as Amtrak’s most popular long-distance train five years running. The route covers roughly 2,200 miles from Chicago to the Pacific Northwest, and travels through Glacier National Park. In FY 2008, Empire Builder ridership increased by 9.8 percent to 554,266. In Montana last year, Amtrak employed 43 residents whose wages were about $3.6 million.

A 2003 study by R.L. Banks & Associates concluded that the Empire Builder contributes nearly $14 million annually in economic benefits to Montana. And it notes the route’s benefits go beyond just finances.

“The Empire Builder serves a vital transportation function in northern Montana,” the report states, “the importance of which may be difficult to appreciate by those who are used to more generous transportation options and amenities in more populous parts of the nation.”

For instance, many residents along the Hi-Line take the train to Whitefish to receive medical care. That’s just one reason why Whitefish is the state’s most popular station.

“The Empire Builder is very, very important to Montana,” MDOT’s Lynch told the NARP members at the Izaak Walton Inn. “This administration and myself, as long as I’m director, we will do everything we can to make sure that we do not lose the opportunity for the Empire Builder…We can not afford to lose this route of travel across our state.”

The Empire Builder’s success would appear to bode well for the North Coast Hiawatha. But it also underlines some of the southern route’s biggest obstacles.

A long haul

While momentum builds behind the return of the North Coast Hiawatha, it must first navigate a daunting series of roadblocks.

“If it was up to political will and the sentiment of the population, we’d have a train parked at the depot tomorrow,” says Taylor. “Now we’ve got to address the really hard issues.”

Money tops the list—how much and who pays. The feasibility study should answer the first question. Answering the second will be much more difficult. Because of the relatively small populations in Montana and the other states likely along the route, most of the money would need to come from the federal government.

“The question becomes, Will the federal government provide an operating grant to Amtrak big enough to let them support it the way they support the Empire Builder?” says NARP President Ross Capon. “And that’s a dicey question, not just because of the hard times economically, but also, there are two competing routes Amtrak is studying at the same time.”

The Passenger Rail Investment & Improvement Act also directed Amtrak to study the feasibility of two other defunct routes. The Pioneer connected Seattle and Chicago via Portland, Boise, Salt Lake City and Denver until it shut down in 1997. The Sunset Limited ran between Orlando and New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005 and closed the route.

“The North Coast Hiawatha may be the heaviest lift simply because it’s the longest run,” Capon says. “On the other hand, if the passenger traffic is projected to be robust, that could be mitigated.”

The state will certainly need to chip in on funding as well. Gov. Brian Schweitzer supports the train, but the Montana Legislature’s track record appears mixed. Three bills were introduced this session with big implications for increased passenger rail service in the state. The aforementioned SB 9, which authorizes local governments to issue revenue bonds to fund public transportation systems, passed. Senate Bill 283, also introduced by Missoula’s Ron Erickson, would direct MDOT to update the state rail plan to reflect federal legislation. That bill died in committee. Senate Bill 166, introduced by Helena’s Dave Lewis, would allow the issuance of low-interest coal tax trust fund loans to expand rail passenger service. That bill also died.

“My guess is that there is enough bipartisan interest, particularly in the Senate, to get more done in the next session,” Erickson says.

Beyond money, knotty railroad ownership and improvement issues must be untangled. The transcontinental freight company Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway (BNSF) owns the entire length of the old North Coast Hiawatha route in the state. Montana Rail Link (MRL) holds a lease through 2047 on more than half of it, from the Montana-Idaho border to Billings.

Reintroducing a passenger train would take “extensive work,” says MRL spokeswoman Lynda Frost. She also emphasizes that freight is the company’s priority.

“However, if the southern line would materialize we are certainly going to be there to do everything we can to make it a success.” She adds: “It would certainly be an expectation that it would be a profit center for us.”

The “extensive work” Frost mentions likely includes improving track so passenger trains can achieve higher speeds. There are also logistical issues, such as fitting passenger trains into current freight schedules. “You’re not going to have good service down here if you limit your passenger trains to 59 mph and they’re out there playing bumper cars with the coal trains,” says Taylor.

Then there are the depots at every stop along the old North Coast Hiawatha. The now-relics are mostly abandoned or have been converted into something else entirely. Finally, there’s the need for railroad cars, which cost more than $1 million each.

These mounting obstacles contribute to the naysayers’ sense of fatalism. Missoula City Councilman Dick Haines, for example, doesn’t oppose restoring the North Coast Hiawatha, he simply doesn’t think it can happen in his lifetime.

“I just don’t think you could crank up a train system that would be self-supporting,” he says. “I told my colleague down there, Mr. Strohmaier, I said, ‘It will never happen, Dave. It will never happen.’ And it may be long after we’re both gone before it does happen.”

Strohmaier counters with the same measured optimism that marks the whole movement.

“My response to that,” he says, “is as long as you have that attitude it’s going to be a self-fulfilling prophecy if you don’t put any energy into it.”

He told Haines he’d save him a ticket on the North Coast Hiawatha’s first trip out of town.

But Haines’ belief that the train wouldn’t be self-supporting reflects a common knock against Amtrak—that it’s too heavily subsidized for the benefit it provides. Nationally, the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, argues this point the loudest, claiming that train travel is costlier than both driving and flying.

Cato Institute senior fellow Daniel Mitchell called President Obama’s $8 billion high-speed rail plan announced on April 16 “just ludicrous.”

“Most Amtrak trains outside of a few high-density, short-distance corridors are a throwback to days gone by,” a 2001 Cato Institute analysis read. “The railroad does not now contribute much to America’s mobility, and its future plans, although expensive, spell more of the same. History is clear that increasing subsidies to Amtrak will not solve Amtrak’s problems. The nation must create a public-private rail franchise program and eliminate disincentives to private companies that may be interested in taking over promising Amtrak routes.”

Historian Bill Taylor has heard this argument before, and he echoes a common refrain from train advocates.

“What people always forget is that we subsidize the Interstate Highway System horrendously to run trucks and buses and our private automobiles,” he says. “We subsidize the airline industry horrendously…There is no industrialized country in the world that runs a passenger system at a profit. It just doesn’t happen. You cannot charge people enough to offset the costs. What has to happen is that people, the citizenry, has to decide that having alternative ground transportation in the form of rail is a high priority enough to subsidize it.”

Light at the end of the tunnel

Despite obstacles, the movement chugs along. Train advocates point to three more very good reasons for their optimism: Rep. Denny Rehberg and Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester, all of whom support increased service in the state.

Rehberg sits on the powerful House Appropriations Committee and chairs the Congressional Rail Caucus. His work to secure funding for Amtrak led to NARP honoring him in 2007 with the George Falcon Golden Spike Award.

Baucus chairs the Senate Finance Committee, perhaps the most influential committee in Congress.

All three delegates sent letters to the NARP meeting at the Izaak Walton Inn, each followed by applause after it was read aloud. Baucus wrote, in part: “Rail service is not only part of the rich history and heritage of Montana; it also is part of Big Sky Country’s bright future…The time has come to reassess our transportation network. Time to find transportation solutions that preserve our outdoor heritage while boosting businesses and encouraging economic growth. That’s why I’m looking forward to the findings of the feasibility study for Montana’s southern route. I’m committed to exploring every option; to make sure Montana has a network that works for the 21st century.”

Receptive representatives don’t hurt, says NARP President Capon, “but the willingness of communities to invest in their facilities is at least as important.” Advocates are hopeful that the passage of SB 9 helps send that message, as well as other signs from small communities along the southern route. The Townsend City Council, which represents 1,981 citizens just southeast of Helena, passed a resolution late last year supporting the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act. And a collective in Livingston, a city that thrived when Northern Pacific serviced its steam trains at the local depot, has proposed to restore former railroad shops to build new passenger cars for Amtrak.

Together, they begin to bring into focus the local, state and federal partnership necessary to bring the North Coast Hiawatha back.

So what are its chances? Capon puts a number on it: 55 percent.

“I do think it’s a heavy lift,” he says, “and I think for Washington to be made aware of every investment—not just the resolutions that say we want the service, but tangible investments—on offer if the federal government makes a commitment to run the train can help push the odds to more favorable.”

According to Taylor, they’ve become much more favorable than just a couple years ago.

“When they first started—and I’ve lived in Montana all my life, I’ve been through all this stuff—I gave them about a one out of 100 chance of getting this going,” he says. “There are some events that played well into what they’re doing: $4 gasoline and what’s happened with the airline industry here in the last year. People are dramatically wanting alternative transportation, and they’ve got a lot of political support behind this effort.

“Over the course of the last couple years,” he adds, “I’ve seen their chances of success dramatically increase.”

Whatever the odds, Councilman Strohmaier says they’re better than they’ve been since 1979, the last time the North Coast Hiawatha rolled through Missoula.

“My philosophy throughout all of this is we simply can’t retrench yet again,” he says. “We have about as good an opportunity now as we’ve had in decades to make this a reality. This is something worth having a bold vision of. Even though economic situations are challenging nationwide, I don’t think that being timid about this is going to—in the long term, for future generations—buy us anything. I think we need to think creatively about how to make this a reality. If we think it’s important enough, I’m convinced we can make it happen.”

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