From Portugal to New York, Montana’s southern passenger rail efforts draw attention

The New York Times featured this 1961 photo in its story on Montana’s passenger rail efforts, picturing the Olympian Hiawatha operated by the Milwaukee Road. It served as a predecessor to the North Coast Hiawatha. (Photo by the Milwaukee Road)

Montana’s efforts to reboot a passenger rail line that ceased operations in 1979 has gained applause beyond the state, garnering both national and international attention.

Last week, the New York Times ran an article titled, “In Rural Montana, a Hope That Biden Will Reopen the Rails.” It was followed a week later by an article in Publico, a Portuguese newspaper, under the heading “The train in rural America is waiting for the ‘Amtrak Joe’ push.”

The “Joe” in the article referred to President Joe Biden, which the article described as “friend of the trains.” It also named Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier, who serves as the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority’s inaugural president.

Strohmaier said the mystique of passenger service across scenic southern Montana has broad appeal.

“Is this because folks are attracted to the idea of accessing the American West and our iconic Yellowstone National Park via rail? Is it because it’s a big undertaking spearheaded by grassroots local government?” he said. “Or is it because we’ve come together in a diverse collection of counties transcending geography, politics and ideology? I think it’s all of these.”

The article in Publico likely stemmed from the Times article, which also cited the Missoula Current. The Times article branded the president “Amtrak Joe” and noted the North Coast Hiawatha – the former Amtrak route that crossed southern Montana.

It’s that very line which the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority is looking to relaunch, providing passenger service to both rural Montana and the state’s largest cities.

“Making the journey between Chicago and Seattle, the Hiawatha served the largest cities in Montana,” the Times article noted. “Its absence left a gap in a state where cities and services are widely scattered and public transportation is poor to nonexistent, especially for low-income residents.

Strohmaier told the paper that it’s not uncommon for rural residents to travel 175 miles to catch a flight or receive medical services. It’s been a common theme through the effort, which is now a year old. It’s one of the reasons that several rural Montana counties have come aboard.

“Rural communities see it as an economic development opportunity but also as a social lifeline for residents who might not have any other means to travel long distances for necessities,” the paper quoted Strohmaier as saying.

Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier

A dozen participating counties spanning Montana from east to west officially formed the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority in early December, marking the first time such an organization has ever been formed in the state.

The organization will hold its third meeting this month.

“Not only have we kindled regional attention for our passenger rail restoration efforts in Montana, but to the surprise of many, the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority has garnered national and international interest,” Strohmaier said. “We were even featured in Portugal.”

The authority’s official formation culminated an effort that began in October 2019. With the authority officially established, it’s now tackling the mundane but necessary steps of organizing the board’s bylaws and other governing matters.

Its ultimate goal is to restore Amtrak service across the old North Coast Hiawatha line, which ran from 1971 to 1979. The route included Miles City, Billings, Livingston, Bozeman, Missoula and Paradise, among other communities.

“In a time of bitter political polarization in this county and abroad, I’d like to think that our passenger rail efforts are emblematic of how — around the globe — we might work together to achieve shared goals,” Strohmaier said. “Perhaps we all have more in common than we might think.”

Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority appoints officers, courts more counties