It’s one of Missoula’s most persistent complaints among vacationers, business travelers and local residents alike: Travel to and from the Garden City is expensive, time-consuming and unpredictable in the winter months. But recently, a group of railroad enthusiasts calling themselves the Montana/Wyoming Association of Railroad Passengers has begun working with Montana’s congressional delegation on a plan that would re-open the southern half of the state to passenger rail service for the first time in more than 20 years.
If successful, the plan would allow Amtrak to resurrect a 1,250-mile route between Spokane and Denver once known as the Old Colorado and Southern Line, which was discontinued 21 years ago. The new route would include more than a dozen stops along the way, running through Sandpoint, Idaho, Missoula, Helena, Bozeman and Laurel, then down the Big Horn Basin of Wyoming and into Colorado.
Currently, the only regular passenger service through Montana travels along the Hi-Line, originating in Chicago and running through Havre, Shelby and Whitefish into Spokane and Seattle.
“There are a lot of possibilities for this train,” says Michael Ackley, vice president of the newly formed group. “It’s just good business sense for Montana. That’s what we’re hearing from people. They want to have an alternative.”
Ackley says that the proposal has been greeted with enormous enthusiasm in both Montana and Wyoming, from ski resort owners and the state’s board of tourism to small business owners eager to see a new travel alternative into Montana. Backers of the measure are also hoping its inaugural run can coincide with the upcoming bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery expedition.
Already, the Montana/Wyoming Association of Railroad Passengers has gathered more than 7,000 signatures on a petition it delivered to Amtrak, and has introduced a joint resolution in the Montana Legislature expressing support for new route. A feasibility study by Amtrak was expected out earlier this month, but has been pushed back until January due to modifications in the proposed route.
Residents of western Montana shouldn’t start dumping their frequent flyer miles just yet, however. Ackley says that it will likely be three to four years at minimum before passenger train whistles begin sounding in the Missoula Valley, initially with only one train traveling in each direction per day. In addition, equipment improvements, track upgrades and new stations are expected to cost anywhere from $40 million to $100 million and would require the approval of Amtrak and Montana Rail Link. Two bills in Congress have already been introduced to allow the cash-strapped Amtrak to sell bonds to pay for new train corridors throughout the country.