Montana counties band together to reinvigorate passenger rail

The newly formed Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority aims to connect a rural and divided state.

Mary Janacaro Hensleigh grew up on a cattle ranch between Three Forks and Whitehall, Montana, on a long, flat stretch of golden grassland between Bozeman and Butte in the Jefferson Valley. At 10 years old, she was steering the family’s pickup. But she didn’t leave the valley until she took a train trip as a child in 1959.

Hensleigh visited Kansas City, Missouri, and then Pasco, Washington. After high school, she headed to Kansas for college, feeling buoyant about the future. When she returned in 2005 to take care of her elderly parents, she found her hometown, Whitehall, population 921, largely unchanged: The place was still hemmed in by hay bales and alfalfa, still served by one ACE hardware store and a single bank. The train of her childhood, though, was gone.

  • The town of Whitehall, Montana began as a railroad depot for the Northern Pacific and Montana rail lines. Today a statewide coalition is working to revive the passenger rail line that would span 600 miles and connect the state’s residents.

  • A group of middle school friends walk home across the railroad tracks in Whitehall, Montana.

Now, as the mayor of Whitehall, Hensleigh represents Jefferson County in a statewide coalition working to revive passenger rail in southern Montana. The line would span 600 miles and connect the state’s residents, including elderly, disabled and non-mobile people, to doctor’s appointments, shopping centers and one another. “The possibilities are endless as to how you could utilize this train service,” Hensleigh said.

The coalition, the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority, was the brainchild of Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier. In 2020, Strohmaier rallied support from a dozen urban and rural counties, passed a joint resolution among county commissions to create the authority, and began meeting with Amtrak and Montana’s congressional representatives to discuss funding and infrastructure. Strohmaier wants to revive the rail line that ran from Chicago through southern Montana to Seattle from 1971 to 1979. That line, the North Coast Hiawatha, hit most of the state’s major population centers, whereas Montana’s only current passenger rail line, the Empire Builder, connects a strip of rural towns from eastern Montana to Whitefish before continuing on to the Pacific Northwest. “This is serious,” Strohmaier said. “This is not just a collection of rail buffs or guys who like to dress up in conductor outfits and reminisce about the good old days.”

 Proponents are approaching passenger rail as an engine of equity across a politically and economically divided state. In Pablo, Montana, on the Flathead Reservation in northwest Montana, Robert McDonald sees a revitalized railroad as a potential salve against the barriers that families face securing reliable transit to doctor appointments. Last July, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes wrote a letter in support of the rail project. “The belief is that passenger rail is a significant opportunity to provide enhanced transportation,” said McDonald, the communications director for the CSKT. “It should also be an opportunity for business expansion or development across the state.”

“We need to provide options for people. So when you take the car away and the keys away, it isn’t like a death sentence.”

Good transportation, the kind that’s both publicly accessible and frequent, is a key engine of social and economic mobility, said David Kack, director of the Western Transportation Institute, a research center focused on rural transportation. Montanans who are disabled, too young or too old to drive, or who otherwise lack access to a car, suffer acutely from lack of transportation, especially in rural areas. Nearly one-fifth of Montanans don’t have a driver’s license, and not everyone has access to a car. “We need to provide options for people,” he said. “So when you take the car away and the keys away, it isn’t like a death sentence.”

Source: Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority

While the rail authority has the support of over a dozen counties, some commissioners across the state view passenger rail as an expensive vestige of the past. Yellowstone County, Montana’s most populous county, declined to join the authority because of its estimated price tag — past estimates project the rail service would cost over a billion dollars. New passenger rail would also compete with freight cargo on Montana’s single tracks. “It just doesn’t make sense for commerce,” said Don Jones, a Yellowstone County commissioner.

That kind of local hesitation, coupled with a state Legislature that’s been slow to pursue public transportation, makes for a tough battle. But the new rail authority is fueled by the belief that political and social forces have come together to restore southern Montana’s passenger rail. They’re optimistic that the Biden administration’s commitment to building out transportation infrastructure nationwide is a harbinger of expanded transit across the state.

Now, the Big Sky Rail Authority needs to secure funding to conduct a preliminary engineering study, purchase train sets and subsidize Amtrak’s implementation of the system. It’s looking to a few different avenues for funding. These could include the reauthorization of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, expected this May, Congress’s annual budget reconciliation process or the Biden administration’s $2 trillion dollar infrastructure plan, announced on March 31, which promises to invest in reliable mass transit. Strohmaier is determined to expand passenger rail’s reach throughout the state, whatever it takes. “If there has ever been a time where the stars have aligned politically to make something big happen, it is now,” he said. “We don’t want to squander this moment.”

Railroad tracks run through Whitehall, Montana, a town that began as a vibrant railroad depot in the late 19th century.

Note: The map has been updated to correctly label the counties participating in the rail authority.

Surya Milner is an editorial intern at High Country News. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.