Railroad enthusiast shares additional passenger rail history details

Guest Opinion By Mark Meyer
Thursday, December 30, 2021
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I enjoyed Jason Stuart’s multi-part history of rail passenger service in Glendive. Based largely on articles in the Ranger-Review over the years, the articles gave a rare local perspective on the topic. However, some of the information was incomplete.

While Glendive did have rail passenger service for nearly a century, the North Coast Limited (the train mentioned most often in the article) operated only from 1900 to 1971. Northern Pacific (and BN starting in 1970) did operate other long-distance services through Glendive until 1971. From the Great Recession until after World War II, the North Coast Limited was accompanied by trains like the Yellowstone Comet and Alaskan. Indeed, the North Coast Limited was always its flagship train, and in its latter years was considered one of the finest passenger trains in the country.

Streamliners were all the rage immediately after World War II, and the NP began the process of streamlining its North Coast Limited in 1947, and was mostly complete by 1952. Also in 1952, NP reduced the running time of the North Coast Limited by about 12 hours and eliminated numerous station stops. To fill the void at the smaller stations (and to replace the Alaskan passenger train with few amenities and aging equipment), NP inaugurated its Mainstreeter, named for NP’s nickname as “The Main Street of the Northwest.” The Mainstreeter, which never achieved streamliner status, was placed on the North Coast Limited’s previous slower schedule and with fewer onboard amenities.

By the 1950s, overall passenger train ridership was already on the decline as the government ignored railroad infrastructure and spent on highways and airports. The final blow for many railroads was in September 1967 when U.S. Mail was removed from most of the country’s remaining passenger trains. Shortly thereafter NP petitioned to discontinue the Mainstreeter several times, but was denied by the Interstate Commerce Commission. As such, the Mainstreeter continued until the advent of Amtrak on May 1, 1971. Railroads were required to operate any passenger trains that departed origin on April 30 through to destination, and as such, the eastbound Mainstreeter (a Burlington Northern train by this time) was the last pre-Amtrak passenger train to serve Glendive. Advertised to depart Seattle at 715 PM April 30, it was scheduled to depart Glendive at 1202 AM May 2. (The final North Coast Limited was the eastbound train, 609 PM May 1 from Glendive.)

The reinstated Amtrak service through Glendive (launched in June, 1971 at the behest of Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield of Montana) was officially an unnamed train. It received a name on November 14, 1971, the North Coast Hiawatha, a hybrid name honoring the North Coast Limited and Milwaukee Road’s Hiawathas, over whose historical route the train used from Chicago to St. Paul.

In the third chapter of his story about passenger service in Glendive, Mr. Stuart stated that the decision to eliminate the North Coast Limited (and Mainstreeter) in 1971 (at the start of Amtrak) as “highly controversial and perplexing at the time and remains so to this day.” While the Amtrak (at the time called Railpax) route selection process was indeed controversial, the reasons for route selection are well-documented. Except for New York to Florida, only one route between designated city pairs would retain service. For the Chicago-to-Seattle route, the former Great Northern line through Williston and Wolf Point was chosen over the NP route through Dickinson and Glendive due to its superior operating characteristics, direct service to Glacier National Park, fewer transportation alternatives, and – contrary to what many believe – higher existing ridership, despite a disadvantage in online population. (60% of patronage between Chicago and Seattle was between Minneapolis and Spokane, and in this segment, the GN route had 15% more riders than the NP route.) Indeed, it should not have been an “either or” decision, but such was the case throughout the country with only one route surviving. For the record, the Empire Builder route through Northern Montana has proven itself. While still the route with the sparsest online population, it carried the most passengers of any Amtrak long distance train most years from the mid-1980s through 2019 (the last pre-Covid year), with only a couple of blips for things like the Bakken Boom and flooding.

Mark Meyer is a native Montanan. He has been a passenger train advocate for over 50 years and worked for Burlington Northern and BNSF for over 40 years. He can be reached at vermontanan@aol.com.