Gardiner Train Station

Is train service to Yellowstone in the cards?

The Wild West was tamed by the power of the locomotive, and Yellowstone National Park owes a huge debt to the large railway companies who heavily marketed trips to America’s Wonderland. Indeed, the history of the railroads and Yellowstone are intertwined: Northern Pacific ran a popular route between Chicago and Seattle that stopped in Billings and Bozeman; a spur at Livingston provided tourists access to Cinnabar via the Park Branch Line and eventually to Yellowstone National Park. The railroads also invested in hotel construction within the Park.

But it’s been decades and decades since a train route ran from Livingston to Yellowstone, and there’s currently no passenger service on that old North Coast Hiawatha route. If you want to take a train to Yellowstone, you’ll need to take the Empire Builder and drive south from Glacier National Park, or take the California Zephyr and drive north from Salt Lake City. Neither solution is very satisfactory.

With President Barack Obama proposing a huge increase in public works and mass transit spending over the next several years, though, it’s not so far-fetched to dream about taking the train directly to Yellowstone. And Amtrak is indeed looking at restoring the North Coast Hiawatha line, which would leave the Twin Cities and make its way west through Billings, Livingston, Bozeman and Missoula. The pot for Montana would be sweetened by a proposal to place a national train assembly plant in Livingston. The lines are there; it’s a matter of equipment and funding. With Sens. Max Baucus amd Jon Tester (D-Montana) both on board, the prospects look good.

Still, it’s a hike from Livingston to Gardiner. A lovely hike through the Paradise Valley, but a hike nonetheless.

So how could Livingston rail service help Yellowstone National Park? There are two answers here: one small and one big.

The obvious answer is for Xanterra or a private operator to run buses between Livingston and the Park should the North Coast Hiawatha line be restored to passenger service. Not the best of solutions, but one that requires little capital investment and offers maximum flexibility.

The other answer -– and yes, we’re dreaming -– is to rebuild the Park Branch Line. It would be expensive, and it would require a huge dollop of federal spending; there’s certainly no money in Yellowstone’s coffers to do this. But given the current political climate, not impossible.

The original track beds still exist – we say beds because the actual line configuration did change over time – and the issue would be obtaining right of way if any were abandoned. (We’re guessing not; railroads have always been reluctant to give up land, even on abandoned lines.) The entire line would probably need some work to bring it up to modern standards. Past that, it’s a matter of laying lines and coming up with an ultimate destination.

Of course, it would not be this simple. But as an application of federal stimulus money, it’s perfect. Rebuilding the line would instantly create construction jobs. It would also create additional jobs after the service begins; someone must drive and maintain those trains. It would be an environmentally friendly way to bring visitors to Yellowstone National Park; fewer cars in the park means less pollution, less noise, less congestion and less impact on wildlife.

It would also give Park Service officials a chance to take a big-picture view and rethink how people get around Yellowstone. Plans for limiting cars and replacing them with buses have been floating around for decades. If train service acts as a secondary transit system and reduces the number of cars in the Park in the summer without an outright ban, everyone wins. And locals would have a reliable transportation source year-round; one big plus to trains is their safety record in bad winter weather.

Yes, we’re dreaming. But this is doable, and there’s never been a better time to discuss railroading to Yellowstone since the last train ran on the Park Branch Line some forty-some years ago.

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Photo of Gardiner train station from Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-92912

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