U.S., Montana: Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority is doing many of the right things for new passenger train development

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on this platform on December 5, 2020. It has been updated and has new information. – Corridorrail.com Editor

By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; May 19, 2022

The founders and members of Montana’s Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority have taken exception to the fact the former Northern Pacific Railway, now BNSF Railway (with some Montana Rail Link thrown in that is about to revert back to BNSF) route has been passenger trainless since October 1979 when the Carter Administration’s draconian cuts of Amtrak long distance/inter-regional trains took place. It was – along with other routes – the North Coast Hiawatha that ungloriously went away. General sadness ensued, but it’s taken nearly five decades for someone to start doing something to cure the sadness.

Post-World War II magazine ad in The Saturday Evening Post. Image from Wikipedia.

In a nod to the disappeared Milwaukee Road’s The Olympian Hiawatha, Amtrak had dubbed its version of the Vista-Dome North Coast Limited the North Coast Hiawatha. One can hope when successful, the new train will drop the clumsy Hiawatha moniker and revert to the much more dignified and admired North Coast Limited.

The Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority is living up to Montana’s reputation of never doing anything small and has created a strong alliance between various counties in Southern Montana and – a huge plus – has the interest and (as they describe it) the ex-officio participation of BNSF.

In the passenger train development world, having the initial interest from the primary host railroad is a huge step forward and advantage. For many of us familiar with the process, this may be precedent-setting. It shows BNSF understands when someone pays attention in the beginning, things go smoother without any “wild” ideas cropping up to distract from the serious business of developing a new passenger train. Without naming any names (but their initials are CSX, NS, UP, CN and CP), the other Class Is hopefully will be monitoring this and taking notes.

Big Sky seems to be progressing at a good clip, seeking wise counsel and approaching the whole thing with an open mind. They are looking at what has worked and what has not. What they do know is: They want a passenger train.

The Main Street of the Northwest route of the Vista-Dome North Coast Limited. Internet image.

Northern Pacific ran two major trains over the Chicago-Seattle/Portland route: The Vista-Dome North Coast Limited and the Mainstreeter. The company called itself “The Main Street of the Northwest.”

While the North Coast Limited was the premier named train, the somewhat slower, less glamorous, more mail and express car-pulling Mainstreeter still performed important work providing a critical second frequency over the route as well as pulling in big bucks for all of the non-passenger materials it hauled in its mail and express cars.

It was the perfect-for-its-time scenario of pairing of two trains with two distinct purposes, yet each financially made the other one possible. As an interesting note, the two trains did not have the exact same route as the Mainstreeter took a bit of a detour from the North Coast Limited route to provide direct service to Montana’s capital of Helena.

As mentioned above, a good part of the route in Southern Montana is over the soon-to-be-gone Montana Rail Link, just about everyone’s sentimental favorite regional carrier. Through the few short decades it’s been alive it has done wonderful things to maintain infrastructure and make its routes more viable. No wonder BNSF made a deal-and-a-half to get it back.

In full color, the beauty of the train’s classic color scheme is timeless. Image from Twitter.

Some incorrigible critics of passenger trains will point to the fact that Stephen Gardner’s Empire Builder operates on a near-parallel route also across BNSF main line trackage that was once the backbone of the Great Northern Railway. So, the critics will say, why is there a need for an additional parallel route?

The best question to such an idiotic question is because there are people living along the route as well as there is huge tourism business to be had for passenger trains through some of the most scenic and breath-taking geography of mountains in North America. Think unparalleled scenery in warm weather months and packed ski lodges when it snows. Both the Northern Pacific and Great Northern were huge users of dome cars and promoted them heavily for both coach and Pullman/sleeping car passengers. The Great Northern favored full-length dome cars and the Northern Pacific the mid-car, shorter bubble domes. Great Northern favored a mountain goat standing on a peak as its mascot while the Northern Pacific favored a cuddly bear as its mascot. No one has ever reported whether or not the GN goat and NP bear ever had an actual meeting.

The domes on the North Coast Limited were wonderfully maintained. In just about the middle of the most scenic part of Montana the train paused and all of the dome windows on the train were thoroughly scrubbed and cleaned by a special crew. Northern Pacific managers understood if they were selling scenery then passengers had to be able to easily see the scenery through clean windows.

A Northern Pacific promotional post card. Internet image.

Northern Pacific Railway’s Vista-Dome North Coast Limited was perhaps the finest streamlined train to operate between Chicago and Seattle/Portland. A typical consist carried mail and baggage cars, coaches and dome coaches, the impressive Lewis & Clark Traveller’s Rest buffet-lounge car, a full dining car, Pullman sleeping cars, Pullman dome-sleeping cars, and a Pullman sleeper-lounge-observation car. The 1960s schedule ran the route in less than 47 hours.

Southern Pacific’s Coast Daylight was dubbed by the news media (and, quickly, happily picked up by Southern Pacific’s public relations department) as The Most Beautiful Passenger Train in the World. A pleasant debate can be held over that point, as the Vista-Dome North Coast Limited, as created by famed industrial designer Raymond Lowey, enjoyed an eye-pleasing/Cascades Mountains-blending color scheme of a dark green roof, letterboards and window band, a thin white line below the window band, and pale mint green lower sides with black undercarriage and trucks. The beautifully matched consists were stunning, inside and out. Quiet elegance is the best description for this notable train.

Towards the end of the train’s 71 year existence on Amtrak Day in 1971 (April 29, 1900 to April 30, 1971), the rear Pullman sleeper-lounge-observation car had been deleted in 1967, and sleeping car passengers were treated to the new Lounge in the Sky in one of the dome sleepers; conventional dome chairs were removed and replaced with 24 lounge table seats.

Adult passengers in the dining car were treated to Northern Pacific’s trademarked Great Baked Potato, a huge potato (in honor of the train’s trek through Idaho) weighing two pounds or more, accompanied by an appropriate amount of creamy butter. A Northern Pacific-branded spoon was provided with the potato so no passenger left any part of the potato behind.

It was the 1962 children’s menu that caught the eye of passengers with young riders in tow. There was a special-printed children’s menu (featuring, of course, a bear with an engineer’s hat with NP logo) for all three meals; the least expensive full meal was 85 cents, the most expensive full meal was $1.10. Included on the menu for dinner was a “Kiddie Cocktail.” It is left to history what was in the Kiddie Cocktail.

The full Children’s Menu included:


  1. Fresh Orange Juice, Porridge with Cream, Buttered Toast, Milk or Cocoa; 85 cents
  2. Fruit Juice, Eggs (2) Any Style, Toast or Muffins, Milk or Cocoa; 95 cents
  3. Fruit or Fruit Juice, And Cereal with Cream, Dollar Pan Cakes or French Toast, Milk or Cocoa; $1.05


  1. Vegetable Soup, Long Ranger Sandwich (Peanut Butter and Jelly), Vanilla Ice Cream or Sherbet, Milk; 85 cents
  2. Broiled Fish In Season, Steamed Potato, Baby String Beans, Bread and Butter, Rice Pudding, Milk; 95 cents
  3. Creamed Chicken in Whipped Potato Nest, Buttered Carrots, Luncheon Roll, Fruited Jello, Milk; $1.05


  1. Kiddie Cocktail, Vegetable Plate Dinner, Bread and Butter, Ice Cream or Sherbet, Milk; 90 cents
  2. Ground Beef Patties, Garden Peas, Mashed Potatoes, Bread and Butter, Chocolate Pudding, Milk; $1.00
  3. Cream of Tomato Soup, Broiled Lamp Chop, Whipped Potatoes, Buttered Baby Beets, Hot Biscuit, Circus Sundae, Milk; $1.10

That’s what was offered just for the children, all freshly prepared, while adult passengers munched and munched on their minimum two pounds of Great Baked Potato.

In 1962 there was no concept of 1% or 2% fat content of milk; there was only whole milk and skim milk, which, at the time, pretty much tasted like white-colored water. The railroad dining cars never specialized in low-fat diets, gluten free diets (ask any dining car steward or chef of the day about “gluten free” and most likely you would have been met by a blank stare), or low carbohydrates. The result of this was every bowl of cereal or other dish served traditionally with milk was instead served with cream. In most of today’s grocery stores, only cream for whipping is sold or some combination of cream and chemicals for use in coffee.

The Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority is perhaps the leading candidate in the country for a breathtaking opportunity: Will it blithely fall into the clutches of Stephen Gardner’s Amtrak and its disdain for long distance/inter-regional trains or, in its own good time, explore what opportunities are available for some operator other than Stephen Gardner’s Amtrak to create and provide the new service as it is meant to be developed?

There is nothing in the law which requires new passenger train development to solely be achieved by Stephen Gardner’s Amtrak. Amtrak can’t even field full consists for its summer trains this year; where, without waiting perhaps a decade for new inter-regional train equipment to arrive, would Amtrak come up with the multiple sets of equipment necessary to initiate new service? Stephen Gardner’s Amtrak is consistently the most expensive choice for states to contract with to run passenger trains. There is no reason to believe Amtrak’s errant math would not apply to a new train here.

The Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority can dream big, just like the Montana sky. There is time and opportunity to create a new world of inter-regional passenger trains in North America. Montana is a great place to look up at the sky and realize the sky truly is the limit.

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