Railroad lovers take the rail way home

Loving life on the train

By DAVID REESE/MONTANA LIVING — For Christmas in 1933, Herman Pierson got his first wind-up toy train.

It broke the next day.

But for his seventh birthday, he got his first real toy train: an electric, "O" gauge American Flyer. Seventy years later, Pierson still loves trains. He loves looking at them, he loves riding them and he loves to fix them. He spent 40 years working on trains for the Southern Pacific railroad. Now that he’s retired, he and his wife, Carolyn, spend a good part of the year riding Amtrak trains around the United States.

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Waiting for the train in Malta, Montana.

In the past two years the Piersons have ridden every one of the western lines of Amtrak. Last week they hopped on the Empire Builder at Essex, starting the long journey home to Atlanta. It was cold and snowing when the long, silver Empire Builder slowed to a stop at Izaak Walton Inn on Thursday.

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Snow banks as tall as refrigerators lined the tracks. With six feet of snow piled on top of them, the summer cabins in the area looked like Eskimo Pies. Pulling out of Essex, the train wound slowly up and over the Continental Divide along railroad tracks that clung to the hillside high above the Middle Fork of the Flathead River.

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Scenery from the Amtrak Empire Builder along the Continental Divide

Winter howled outside. But inside, the sightseer car was filled with the excited chatter of travelers returning home to the Midwest from a ski vacation at Big Mountain. The tourists marveled at the sight of elk feeding on a hillside across the river in Glacier National Park and on an avalanche path that crossed the Middle Fork of the Flathead River.

"They say there’s good fishing along here but I don’t know," one traveler was overheard saying in his telltale midwest accent. Teen-agers thought out loud how cool it would be to snowboard down some of the chutes. Travelers also discussed the idea that this might be their last ride on an Amtrak train, since the beleagured passenger system is running out of money; Congress will decide its fate before Oct. 1.

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Sitting in their deluxe sleeper car as the train made its way across the plains between Browning and Cut Bank, Herman and Carolyn Pierson watched the countryside roll past the large windows. At rural crossings seemingly in the middle of nowhere, people sat in their vehicles and waved eagerly at the passing train. The Piersons prefer rail travel over air or auto — especially on the Empire Builder, where you can see the tall mountains of Washington and Montana; the wheat fields of the Dakotas, and the rivers and lakes of Minnesota and Wisconsin.

"The scenery’s different everywhere you go," Herman says. For a group of seven families from Minnesota last week — including 22 children — traveling on a train is the best way to go. The families were returning home from their annual ski vacation, which this year brought them to Big Mountain in Whitefish.

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A westbound Amtrak train sits in the yard in Whitefish, Montana. (David Reese photo/Montana Living)

"This is a great way to travel for families. You can just walk around, wander from place to place," Marla Jorgenson, from Little Falls, Minn., said. "It’s much better than being squashed in a car for 19 hours." While the adults chatted about the fate of Amtrak and the astounding scenery outside, their children wandered quietly about the train. They congregated in groups of two and three in the tall seats, playing with their Game Boys or tickling each other. Settling into the trip, the adults pulled out a beat-up red Coleman cooler and played a game of cards on top of it.

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A family enjoys the ride to Minneapolis from Whitefish, Montana. (Karen Nichols photo/for Montana Living)

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People board Amtrak's Empire Builder from Whitefish, Montana. (Karen Nichols photo/for Montana Living)

"I feel really safe here," Jorgenson said, slapping down a pair of fives. Pierson looked wistfully out the windows, wondering what could happen to trains like the Empire Builder, the Hiawatha, the Silver Metro and the Sunset Limited — all trains he's ridden in the last year — if Congress pulls the funding. An avid rail fan, Pierson thinks people, especially the elderly, should be given a choice of cross-country transportation. Amtrak, he says, should be given a consistent source of funding, like revenue from a gasoline tax so it doesn't have to beg Congress every two years to keep it operating.

Rail travel offers people a way to see the countryside while experiencing the meditative, soothing sway of the cars and the gentle rocking of a train. It's like no other mode of transportation.
When he gets back to Georgia, Pierson will be heading to a national convention of model-railroad fans, where they can discuss their passions for trains.

To the Piersons, losing passenger rail service would mean losing part of the American identity. "I miss the good ol’ days of being able to hop on a passenger train in almost any town in America and go almost anywhere," Herman Pierson said. Shelby, north of Great Falls, is a changeover location for crews. Station agent Patty Hughes has worked here ever since May 1, 1971, the day Amtrak was created when it took over the passenger operations of several railroads. With her Springer spaniel at her side, Hughes worked busily and alone. Recent cutbacks on Amtrak are readily visible.
In the bathroom at the Shelby station, a soap dispenser hung precariously from the wall, held in place with shipping tape. The budget for the Shelby station doesn’t leave room for a new soap dispenser. There are no luxuries here. The office's military-green file cabinets and desks are leftovers from Malmstrom Air Force Base. In the back room sit 60-year-old carriages that were used to carry passengers’ luggage out to the train, but because of budget cutbacks agents no longer check baggage. By late afternoon, Hughes was busy getting tickets for westbound passengers. The passengers cut a wide swath of demographics; mothers with children in tow, well-dressed senior citizens, and teen-agers wearing baggy pants and headphones. A cowboy in Wranglers sat in the corner of the waiting area, looking out at the room from under his black hat. Sunlight streamed through the dingy train station windows, and freight trains clashed outside.

At the counter, a passenger haggled over his reservation, and Hughes accommodated him politely, something she’s used to doing after 30 years of service with Amtrak. Off in the distance, the Empire Builder’s horn cut through the sunny afternoon and blue sky of eastern Montana.

Hearing the horn, the waiting passengers shuffled outside and stood on the siding, their heads cocked east toward the oncoming silver train.