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After long history, Empire Builder remains an important corridor for Northern Montana

Railroad Crossing
Posted at 9:16 AM, Sep 28, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-28 11:16:56-04

HELENA — After Saturday’s deadly derailment of the Empire Builder train in Liberty County, state and national officials have said getting the rail line back up and running is critical for travel and commerce in Montana and across the northern U.S. The line’s current importance is underscored by its historical background.

“The railroads basically built Montana,” said Dan Stinson, a member of the Western Montana Railroad Historical Association.

The rail line across northern Montana was built in the 1880s and 1890s, as part of the Great Northern Railway. Stinson says the passengers coming in on the Great Northern immediately reshaped that part of the state.

“One of the important things for the railroads was that the railroads brought settlers,” he said. “The railroads wanted people to live along the lines, to use it for trade, to use it for travel, and so transportation was often the driving force early.”

Starting in the 1920s, the Great Northern began using the name “Empire Builder” to refer to its premier trains running between Chicago and Seattle and Portland. In 1971, Amtrak took over responsibility for nationwide passenger rail, and they maintained the Empire Builder service.

For more than 40 years, the Empire Builder has been the only Amtrak train running through Montana. The North Coast Hiawatha, which ran through Billings, Missoula and other southern Montana cities, was discontinued as part of larger cutbacks.

Stinson says the Empire Builder has remained an important corridor for the Hi-Line.

“Buses are almost non-existent, flights out of the Hi-Line are almost non-existent, so they’re reliant on the railroads, especially lower-income people and retired people,” he said.

Stinson said he’s not aware of any accidents like this on the northern line for at least a decade.

“That line is very heavily used and very heavily maintained,” he said. “To have any kind of an accident at all is really unusual.”

The ongoing response to the derailment has forced Amtrak to cancel Empire Builder service through Montana. Stinson said it’s also possible some high-priority freight trains will be redirected through Helena.

“It’s really sad any time there’s a loss of life,” he said. “Luckily the locals came together and did the things Montanans do best when it gets tough, is rescue people.”