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Advocating for passenger rail service in southern Montana

by Clark Fork Valley Press
| March 31, 2021 12:00 AM

Beginning in the age of steam up to present day the tiny community of Paradise, Montana, has been an important junction of Montana railroads. Decades ago rail passengers frequently stepped off respective east and westbound trains that passed at the junction for a meal or quick sip of beer before proceeding onward with fresh train crews.

In that age of the middle 20th century soldiers and sailors, students and families passed through the small Montana town nestled where the Flathead River spills into the Clark Fork on its way to the mighty Columbia before it empties into the Pacific Ocean.

Forty years have come and gone without that scene repeating.

These days freight train crews seldom depart their locomotives. Sidings are populated with idle oil cars. What’s left of the bricks and mortar depot echoes the voices of summertime rail maintenance crews. And

Paradise struggles bravely against the tide of rural abandonment as silver threads of airliner contrails evaporate overhead.

Three hundred miles to the north Amtrak’s Empire Builder is rebounding from reduced service during the COVID year. Soon that long distance passenger trail will be rolling through Montana on its way from Chicago to Seattle and back seven days a week - depositing nearly $40 million annually in much needed economic activity along Montana’s Highline.

The restoration of regular passenger rail along the Treasure State’s northern border with Canada is a direct result of Senator Jon Tester (D) Montana’s last minute wrangling to include funding for the Amtrak route in President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan.

A plan to rescue Paradise was not included in that funding. But resourceful Montanans are determined to shape a future in which Paradise may once again play host to rail travelers crossing the heart of Montana.

Beginning a year ago the Missoula County Board of Commissioners allocated a small sum from the County’s budget to promote the notion of returning passenger rail service to the mothballed North Coast Hiawatha passenger route.

If the concept comes into being passenger trains would ride existing freight rail from Fargo, North Dakota, to Spokane, Washington, linking major cities of North Dakota, Montana and Idaho and smaller towns like Paradise along the way.

The proposal is an ambitious one and the effort has been made before. Montana Rockies Rail Tours began as a LLC with four partners in 1995. In 2000, the company was purchased by RailQuest America, which was a corporation formed by a small group of investors to operate a luxury train called the Montana Daylight.

The original route from Sandpoint, Idaho, to Livingston, Montana, operated with 26 departures (13 east-13 west) through 2002 but interest declined and the Daylight ceased operations in 2004.

Regional freight rail operator Montana Rail Link provided the diesel locomotives and the engineers, RailQuest America staffed the fleet of passenger cars and streamlined vista domes.

Bringing back a southern passenger line to Montana was again the focus of the Montana Association of Railroad Passengers' conference in Montana’s capital Helena around February 2008.

That year the Whitefish Pilot reported about 80 people showed up, according to Jim Green, the association's president.

Representatives from the governor's office and both Montana Rail Link, which owns the track from Sandpoint, Idaho, to Livingston, and BNSF Railway, which owns the rail line east of there.

Green said at the time that both railroad companies support the concept even though until double tracks are put in, passenger trains will have to share lines with freight trains with the lighter passenger units operating at higher speed except in sections, as the Empire Builder does.

Green described the proposed southern line as a "corridor train" as opposed to the Empire Builder, which is a long-distance train. He emphasized that the southern line is not intended to compete with the Empire Builder.

At that 2008 conference both the Montana Department of Transportation and the University of Montana-Missoula agreed to use their own money to study the proposal. Those efforts to reestablish the service floundered in the 2008 financial meltdown.

Outputs of the passenger rail study were deposited in Montana’s state Dept. of Transportation 2009 Rail Plan. Where they have rested ever since.

Back in Paradise 2021 the winter snow is giving way to mud season. Campaign banners drape across shed walls grieving a national election loss.

Across the road a makeshift POW MIA memorial stands silent sentry. Solemn flag wafting in the breeze paying homage to those soldiers, sailors and marines that passed this way to their fates in the Pacific or jungles of Southeast Asia so long ago.