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A look back on the passenger railroad line that ran through Southern North Dakota and Montana

Published: Oct. 15, 2021 at 6:35 PM CDT
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BISMARCK, N.D. (KFYR) - Travelers haven’t embarked from the Bismarck Depot since October of 1979, but now there’s a proposal that could bring passenger rail back to the area.

Before 1979 people crowded into depots across North Dakota and Montana to ride across the country.

“I can remember when they got their first dome cars as a young kid, I had to go up there and see what it was all about,” said Bismarck resident Terry Lanz.

The route started with North Pacific’s North Coast Limited and Milwaukee Road’s Olympian Hiawatha. In 1971 the route became Amtrack’s North Coast Hiawatha.

Today after the North Coast Hiawatha stopped running, the journey is a distant memory.

“Actually, in the merger when they went into Amtrak the North Coast Limited was still making money. Which was kind of unusual because everybody else was losing money on their passenger service,” added Lanz.

Trains rolled from Seattle to Chicago making stops in Southern Montana and North Dakota including Dickinson, Mandan, Bismarck, and Fargo. The route was cancelled after system-wide Amtrak cutbacks. A 24% spike in ridership due to a gasoline shortage didn’t change the minds of government officials.

“Passenger rail has always been an economic engine in the communities that it serves. There’s nothing new here, but what there is new is an ability to quantify and recognize how much benefit that is,” said Rail Passengers Association president and CEO Jim Mathews.

Since the line ended, much of the North Dakota and Montana populations were decoupled from the national rail network although the Empire Builder line continues in the North.

Now, railroad buffs like Terry Lanz keep the history alive.

“And this here,” said Lanz pointing to a painting in his collection, “used to hang in depots. This is a North Coast Limited. That’s a dome car,” said Lanz.

Lanz adds as a kid he used to ride the North Coast Limited between Bismarck and Mandan for a quarter.

Since the North Coast Hiawatha ended, there have been attempts to restore passenger rail service in 1982, 1991, 2008 and 2021. Today, Big Sky Rail Authority officials hope to use federal infrastructure funding to restore the route.

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