02 March 2010


As most of us know, Amtrak was organized in 1971 to provide intercity rail passenger service within the U.S. Sadly, one result of gathering passenger service from a number of formerly independent carriers into one umbrella organization was the loss of thousands of miles of routes serving hundreds of communities. Amtrak's vision was to simplify its rail network, eliminating low-revenue routes in favor of high-volume corridors between major cities. A map of the resulting system appears at top.

At one time, Montana was served by two east-west passenger routes: the Empire Builder across the northern part of the state, and the North Coast Hiawatha across the southern part. The Hiawatha was deactivated in 1979, eliminating rail service to Billings, Bozeman, Butte, Missoula, and many smaller communities in between. Notably, this decision meant the loss of rail access to the state's two major universities, in Missoula and Bozeman, as well as rail access to Yellowstone National Park.

As a resident of Missoula, I have a vested interest in seeing the Hiawatha route restored. Rail service provides a comfortable, safe and price-competitive alternative to the rising costs of air travel or driving. The U.S. is in the Dark Ages compared to high speed rail service in Europe and east Asia (see photo below). Given the transcontinental distances traveled within the U.S., the presence of existing rail rights-of-way, and the pressing need for modern rail service, there is no excuse for not upgrading and expanding rail routes to include every state and many more cities. A feasability study for the North Coast Hiawatha in particular, revealed that the route could be upgraded and activated within five years of approval, at an initial cost of $1 billion -- an investment that would pay for itself through business and tourist travel.

Here is one link, and here is another link, to websites which seek to promote the return of the North Coast Hiawatha and other passenger rail routes. You will find information on how to get involved, most immediately by contacting your elected representatives to make your voice heard. Here is a link to an interactive map showing the proposed route, which also appears below (click on the image to enlarge). Travel by rail is personable, allows one to really see the countryside, and carries an indefinable romance. In the 21st century, we do ourselves a disservice to further postpone the creation of a comprehensive state-of-the-art rail system.


  1. Not enough people give rail travel a chance. They want to just hop into their car and 'get there' without much thought for the travel itself. What you said about the "indefinable romance" and enjoyable views offered by rail travel is true. Hopefully Americans start to realize these things and take advantage of rail travel (http://bit.ly/Amtrakca)

  2. Scott, I couldn't agree more. Europe in particular is so far ahead of us in this regard. Here's hoping that we can spread the word !!!