Missoula County lobbies for return of passenger rail service

Part of the old train depot in downtown Missoula, built in 1901 and where passenger rail service was available until 1979. (Dave Stalling/Missoula Current)

Missoula County commissioners on Thursday expressed their interest in restoring passenger rail service to Missoula, saying the costs could be recovered in economic and other public benefits.

While the county can’t float the millions needed to restore and continue service, they did agree to begin talks with leaders from other counties while looking for federal grants and other assistance.

“Imagine being able to walk down the street, get on a train, and go to Seattle, maybe work on your laptop or read a book on the way,” said Commissioner Josh Slotnick. “It would be safer, it would be sustainable, it would be enjoyable. And people on the other side would want to do the same thing, come visit Montana. Transportation would be part of the vacation.”

Slotnick also mentioned the benefits and possibilities of being able to travel to places like Yellowstone and Glacier national parks by train. He believes interest would be high.

While passenger rail service through Missoula isn’t new, the idea hasn’t gained much momentum in recent years.

“This is something I’ve been interested in and involved with for more than a decade,” said commission chairman David Strohmaier. “There’s been several efforts to get this going through legislation on the state and federal level, but those efforts never made it too far. It became a dead issue. Rather than repeat what’s been tried in the past, I want to examine what the county can do to push this idea forward.”

Those who have lived in Missoula long enough know such service wouldn’t be new. Northern Pacific Railway, which merged with Burlington Northern in 1970, ran the North Coast Limited passenger train between Chicago and Seattle from 1900 to 1971.

From 1951 to 1971, they also ran the Mainstreeter. Amtrak took over and ran the North Coast Hiawatha along the same route from 1971 to 1979. The trains traveled 2,228 miles and 47 hours each way, with 37 stops, including Missoula, and provided sleeping cars, dining cars and lounges.

Although Amtrak’s Empire Builder passenger service continues to run through northern Montana, it’s the only such service still available in the state.

In 2010, the Montana Department of Transportation released a detailed Montana Rail Plan that, among other things, looked at the historical, current and potential costs and benefits of passenger rail service.

More than 150,000 people rode the Empire Builder in 2009, the report states, contributing nearly $6 million in “spending by nonresidents” to local communities.

The report also said that “rail service avoids the higher personal and societal costs borne through travel by other modes, creating another $7.6 million in annual benefits.”

Amtrak is authorized and willing to provide intrastate passenger rails service, the report added, “if a state is able to provide capital costs for infrastructure and equipment and to pay the difference between operating expenses and revenue.”

But those costs can be hefty. A detailed study included in the 2010 report said running a passenger train between Billings, Helena and Missoula would cost as much as $28 million in infrastructure needs and $159 million for the actual train and service.

“A lot of people look at the costs without looking at the economic and public benefits,” Strohmaier said. “We invest billions in roads and air travel, and don’t blink an eye. We should be willing to look at rail service in a similar manner and look at the value rather than just looking at the costs.”

The commissioners agreed to begin discussions with leaders from other counties, and look into the possibilities for federal grants and other assistance to see if the idea is feasible.

“We need to work together and develop a vision of what we can do collectively,” Strohmaier, “and be ready to seize the moment when resources become available.”