Rail Transit in the Flathead?

by Catherine Haug

Two years ago, gas was over $4/gallon; it won’t be many years before it reaches $10 or even $20/gallon, as demand rises against declining supplies. And it isn’t just the gasoline that would be costly; everything that depends on petroleum or the power it generates will be more expensive: the cost of generating power to mine and refine the steel, aluminum and other metals; to create the plastic and vinyl; and to operate the robots that assemble the cars. Even to build those robots.

So a car that sells for $25,000 today, would cost at least $75,000 when gas is $10/gallon; $200,000 when gas is $20/gallon. Who could afford that, even if the cars are twice as fuel efficient as they are today? Especially if you had to pay 3-times as much for your groceries and utilities that are also dependent upon the cost of gas. [Cost projections are my own best guess].

And then there’s the cost of asphalt or concrete for all the new and rebuilt roads. Asphalt is made from petroleum, so its cost would also rise, as well as the cost to manufacture and lay the concrete. Of course, with rail, there would be the cost to build/rebuild the tracks that must be considered, so it has to be planned smartly.

Portland Streetcar

So why not imagine and plan now, to be ready with an alternative when we can no longer afford cars and highways.

The Case for Rail

(photo from portlandstreetcar.org; see also Portland Streetcar for more)

The AARP Bulletin for April 2010 features an article on “Streetcar Revival” for urban communities. The online version of the article does not feature the cityscape photo that accompanies the paper version, a scene familiar to my eyes because I used to live in that cityscape: Portland, Oregon. An example held as the standard for modern, efficient mass transit in urban areas.

I have long been an advocate for convenient and inexpensive mass transit, not only as an easy, low-stress mode of travel around a city and its surrounds, but also as a way of limiting pollution during peak hours by keeping cars off the streets.

Consider this: light-rail transit could also be applicable to growing rural communities like the Flathead valley.

Train Memories

My interest in rail predates my time in Portland. It harkens back to my childhood summer vacations, traveling around our state of Montana.

Back then (the 1950s), road maps indicated not only roads and highways, but also the train tracks that criss-crossed our state, supporting both freight and passenger cars. (This was years before Amtrak). Sometimes, we parked our car and got on one of these trains, just for the fun of it.

I especially remember a ride from Shelby to Great Falls, a route that is now part of I-15. Riders got on and off at every stop, nodding or tipping a hat in hello to a familiar face, then meeting in the cafe car for a game of cribbage or discussion of politics & crop prices. This train was a real community of commuters, but it was not unique, because there were similar trains all over the state.

My Dream for our Future

Not long ago I had an interesting and detailed dream. I rode my battery-operated cart (similar to a golf cart, but more insulated from the weather), from my garage to a terminus near the old community of Holt. I purchased a ticket for Whitefish, and then drove my cart up a platform onto a Whitefish-bound rail car. (Or I could have chosen a train bound for Polson).

I secured my cart in a specially-designed parking slot where it was connected to an electrical system. I walked to the adjoining passenger car and took a comfortable seat from which I could watch the scenery roll by, en-route to Somers, or converse with fellow passengers.

Meanwhile, the revolving wheels of the train generated electricity to recharge my cart’s battery. At Somers, we picked up other north-bound passengers and dropped off those staying in Somers/Lakeside. The next stop was Kalispell, and then my destination of Whitefish.

There, I retrieved my recharged cart, drove it down a ramp, and off to wherever I wanted to go. Later in the day after finishing my errands, I reversed my trip, back home to Bigfork.

This system allowed use of mass-transit between communities, and personal transit within a community, reducing my contribution to air pollution in the process. And it also connected with the national rail terminal in Whitefish.


Maybe the system of our future won’t be like in my dream, but just imagine being able to zip around the valley on convenient and fast light-rail, without the stress of traffic problems. And imagine some means of personal travel at your destination, available for your use as long as you need it.

Just imagine!

One Response to “Rail Transit in the Flathead?”

  1. Catherine says:

    While our core team reviewed a draft of this article prior to publication, an interesting conversation unfolded between Edd and Cat, which I copy here, with Edd’s permission:

    Edd writes:
    “Great idea, very idealistic, and I can only ‘imagine’ a typical response, ‘I can hop in my Volkswagen Jetta diesel and be to Whitefish, run my errands, and return home in the time it took you to load your cart on the ferry and get to Somers.’

    Cat responds:
    “Ya, I know. Idealistic. But actually, if designed right, the rail would be fast (high-speed perhaps), and the cars would be designed for quick entrance and exit. Or, no carts on the trains, just people, but then have carts at each terminal for people to use.”

    “But to answer those nay-sayers out there, I’ve added [an introductory section to the post, citing some monetary considerations.]”

    “I don’t suppose the same costs would be a consideration when building a suitable rail road is contemplated.”

    “Of course! One must consider the costs of building & maintaining the rail line, rail cars, plus fuel for the engines. But when that cost is spread across the anticipated ridership, at some point in the future, it will be less than the cost of passenger cars, fuel for those cars, new highways and highway maintenance for the same number of people. Also, the costs for shipping via rail vs via truck must be factored in.”

    “At that point, when rail is less costly overall than roads, we would want to have the rail system in place, or at least have it started.”

    “It is already known that rail is cheaper for goods transport than trucks, in routes where rail is currently available, when all factors are considered. It may also be true for personal transport today. Plus, rail transport is less polluting and safer than auto/truck.”

    “I am really in favor of the mass transit concept, but I want you to deal with the arguments, and research the facts that will confront the efforts to press forward along this path. Mass transit is most profitable in urban environments where there are population numbers to justify the cost. Faced with sparse numbers and vast geographic areas, coupled with independent mentalities, such as we have in Montana, it will be a tougher sell.”

    “In this post, I’m trying to get people to IMAGINE mass transit. I believe the first step in any major endeavor is to imagine. Just like when JFK said we’d be on the moon in 10 years. He was challenging all of us to imagine that. We did imagine it, and we did accomplish it.”

    “The facts and $$ will come as we begin to study it. I don’t have the wherewithal to do that study all by myself. … I do understand we have a much smaller population than a city, but the geographical area of the valley is roughly equivalent to a big city like Seattle. And the point I make about the trains in the 50s illustrates that it worked in the past, and can work again. Although I must admit that much of that old track is lost or in very sad repair, so we would have to reconstruct it.”

    “[My job is] to get people to imagine this. The imagining is what helps form the plan. You can’t do the facts and figures until you have a plan.”