DEER LODGE, Mont. — For nearly a century, passenger trains rumbled three times weekly through this broad, grass-rich mountain valley in central Montana, home to more cattle than people, until Amtrak pulled the plug on the North Coast Hiawatha in 1979.
But with a new president known as “Amtrak Joe” and Democratic control of both houses of Congress, a dozen counties across the sparsely populated state are hoping that a return to passenger train service through the cities of Billings, Bozeman, Helena and Missoula, and whistle stops like Deer Lodge in between, is closer than it has been in four decades.
“Residents of the very rural parts of the state have to travel 175 miles to get on a plane or to seek medical services,” said David Strohmaier, a Missoula County commissioner who is one of those behind the newly formed Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority to raise money and lobby for a return to passenger rail in southern Montana. “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.”
Making the journey between Chicago and Seattle, the Hiawatha served the largest cities in Montana. 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.
The Empire Builder, a daily Amtrak train reduced to three times a week during the coronavirus pandemic, travels from Chicago to Seattle and Portland, Ore., through northern Montana, serving only small towns in one of the most remote parts of the state.
Defending the current funding for Amtrak’s routes is a constant battle, so the notion of adding new ones is seen as a long shot. It is less so now, some say, because of the new president and Democratic control of both chambers.
President Biden’s infrastructure plan, for example, promises to “spark the second great railroad revolution.”
“Passenger rail is a vital component to America’s transportation network,” the incoming transportation secretary, Pete Buttigieg, said in a statement to The New York Times. “I believe that the department should promote, help to develop, and fund passenger rail in order to bring America’s railroads into the 21st century.”
Expanding service to new cities “is a tough leap for a lot of people,” said Sean Jeans-Gail, vice president for policy and government affairs for the Rail Passengers Association. “At the same time it feels like the stars are starting to align. We might get an honest-to-God infrastructure bill and that could mean money for expansion.”
Amtrak officials said they were “supporting” the efforts of local officials to expand service. “There are many places around the country that could benefit from restoration of service or new service,” said Marc Magliari, a spokesman for the company.
There has been encouraging news for passenger rail recently, including the recently remodeled Moynihan Train Hall next to Penn Station in New York and the new, next generation of Acela trains due to enter service this year in the Northeast Corridor.
The pandemic, though, has caused financial havoc for Amtrak, as it has for other forms of transportation. Ridership has been down 80 percent. The railroad received $1 billion from the 2020 stimulus.
And the once ambitious plans for high-speed rail in California have been considerably downsized amid soaring cost overruns, which may hurt the cause for expanded rail.
New long-distance service in Montana, if it happened, would not be high speed. Amtrak’s long-distance trains have a top speed of 79 miles per hour, though sections of some routes have requisite safety equipment in place to reach top speeds of 90 miles per hour.
Small communities across the country see economic hope in an Amtrak connection. Northern Montana still has the Empire Builder, which a recent analysis said contributes up to $40 million a year to the small communities it serves. It is the busiest of Amtrak’s long-distance routes and last year carried some 433,000 passengers.
A ballpark figure for the start-up cost of reinstituting new service along Montana’s southern route, Mr. Jeans-Gail said, is $50 million for better signaling, upgrading track and station improvement.
Nostalgia is no small part of the support for train travel. The history of the last 150 years in the West has been entwined with the railroads, the first mode of transportation to bridge the long distances in trips that took days, rather than weeks or months. They brought a radically different world to a wild and remote land — for good and for ill. Homesteaders, miners, buffalo hunters and others came to develop and plunder a rich landscape and occupy the land.
The railroads were also instrumental in the creation of the national parks and park infrastructure, which their originators saw as destinations for passengers.
The town of Deer Lodge was integral in the early days of railroading in Montana and is steeped in rail history. The Northern Pacific came in the 1880s, and in 1907 the now defunct Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad, known as the Milwaukee Road, located its Rocky Mountain division headquarters here.
“Both of my grandfathers and my father were locomotive engineers on the Milwaukee Road,” said Terry Jennings, who lives in Deer Lodge and is on the board of the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority. “When the Milwaukee Road pulled out it busted the back of this town financially.”
Since then the town’s population has dwindled, from nearly 5,000 to less than 3,000, and there is a yearning to recapture some of its railroad past and buttress its tourist economy. Deer Lodge is home to the state prison, and the imposing, castle-like stone territorial prison, retired in 1979, is a tourist attraction. The Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site on the edge of town operates as a cattle ranch did in the 19th century.
Even if rail service returns to the southern route, Deer Lodge might not get service right away, though the train would likely stop nearby. If the railroad does make it here, it would need new infrastructure. The town’s two wood-frame, track-side train stations are now the Depot Church and the Powell County Senior Center.
While some cities in Montana have boomed in recent years, many small towns are in an existential battle. The long distances and sparse population of parts of Montana, sometimes called the Big Empty, make travel difficult and expensive.
Flying from Missoula to Billings, for example, requires flying first to Salt Lake City or Seattle and connecting back; a round-trip flight can cost $500 or more. Bus service is spotty. Spending hours behind a steering wheel is often the only alternative.
New train service would open up secluded parts of the vast state. “There’s a big part of Montana that is virtually untouched, that can only be seen from the railroad,” Mr. Jennings said.
And with an aging population for whom long-distance driving is becoming more difficult, train service looks increasingly attractive. “My husband’s family lives in Terry, 400 miles east,” said Deer Lodge’s mayor, Diana Solle. “We are in our 70s and it’s a long drive.”
Montana is only one of many places working toward new long-distance train service. There is research and planning underway to provide Amtrak service along Colorado’s Front Range; new service between Mobile, Ala., and New Orleans; and additional service between Chicago and St. Paul, Minn. Virginia is adding tracks to expand high-speed train service between Richmond and Washington, connecting to the Northeast Corridor.
Mr. Strohmaier said Montana officials would like to open new rail service to connect to places like Salt Lake City and Denver, especially for people who cannot afford to fly.
“There are economic and social disparities” in travel, he said. “This is the definition of transportation equity. It would provide a more affordable means of transportation for a larger slice of the public than is currently served.”