Train ride is a wonderful outing, a worthy cause

Jeremy Lundblad, a Montana Highway Patrol trooper who lives in Laurel, went on the first train ride of his life Sunday afternoon.

It wasn’t a terribly long trip—Billings to Pompeys Pillar and back, in about two hours—but it was an enjoyable, memorable ride.

“I normally work weekends because that’s when all the fun stuff happens,” he said. “But luckily I was off today.”

So were dozens of other law enforcement officers, firefighters, EMTs and other first responders and their families—about 250 people all told—who were guests of BNSF Railway. They came from towns all over Yellowstone County.

The special 15-car train, pulled by freight locomotives, was dubbed the First Responder Express. Andrew Johnson, assistant vice president of state government affairs for BNSF in Fort Worth, who was on the run, said the event grew out of the railway’s Holiday Express for members of the military and their families.


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Montana Highway Patrol Trooper Jeremy Lundblad looks out at the Yellowstone River aboard the First Responder Express.

Johnson said the Holiday Express started nine years ago and has been used by 20,000 military personnel and their families. Last year, BNSF decided to do something similar for first responders.

“We wanted to extend that theme of recognizing service,” he said.

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Newspaper work isn’t particularly heroic, but reporters are first responders, too, in a way, and when I was invited to ride the special train on Sunday, I couldn’t resist.

I first laid eyes on Montana, in the summer of 1973, through the open doors of a boxcar. I was a recreational hobo for many years after that, usually riding freight trains west out of Missoula, but also from Missoula to Laurel a few times and all along the Hi-Line on several occasions.

But I hadn’t been east of Billings on a train since Amtrak discontinued service on the southern Montana route in 1979. I took Amtrak from Missoula, where I was going to school, to the Twin Cities, where I’m from, quite a few times in the ’70s, and made nearly as many trips in the other direction.

So I’m a sucker for trains, and fell in love with them all over again on Sunday.

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Brandon Ihde, a Billings police officer, is also a big fan of trains. He was riding Sunday with his wife, Carmen, and 2½-year-old daughter, Finlee. Before joining the BPD, Ihde said, he was a firefighter in Glendive, where many of his colleagues were railroad men.

And a big check, too

Inside the Billings Depot before the trip began, Worden Fire Chief Lance Taylor was handed a $10,000 check by a representative of the BNSF Railway.

Taylor, who is also president of the Yellowstone County Fire Council, said the money will be used to buy new radios and otherwise improve communications between members of the council.

“You can’t believe what this does to jumpstart what we’re trying to do,” he said.

He subsequently met a lot of people from Montana Rail Link on the job in Billings, he said, and just for fun he’s been on runs from Laurel to Helena, riding in MRL locomotives. And on their honeymoon, he and Carmen took trains from Montana to Seattle and then down to Sacramento, partly because he wanted to visit a railroad museum there.

The Ihdes were two of many people on the First Responder Express musing about the comeback of passenger rail service in southern Montana. Would they support it if it came back?

“We would use it because her parents are in Missoula,” he said, pointing to Carmen.

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Just about any sort of railway accommodation can be a thrill—even the “porch” on a grain car, I can say from experience—but the special train put together for the First Responder Express was about as good as it gets.

There were several lounge cars, a dining car, a few sleeping cars, a coach with an observation deck, and an unusual bilevel coach with comfortable easy chairs facing big picture windows on the lower level.

That was the main attraction on nearly all the cars—the ability to face the world and look out on it from a comfortable perch. In all the hullabaloo about the coming of driverless cars, we forget that they are already here, more or less, except that in these cars you can get up and go exploring. (And there is somebody driving, but you don’t see that person.)

Once the train cleared the city of Billings, it hugged the south bank of the Yellowstone River for most of the way. And I mean hugged. The train almost seemed to be in the river at some points along the way, an illusion abetted by a strong spring runoff that has the river high and muddy.

That’s what Marcus Lester, a sergeant for the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Office, liked about the trip.

“It was awesome,” he said as the train neared Billings at the end of the ride. “You really get a different perspective. I’ve driven all these roads for years. It’s neat to see them from the railroad’s perspective.”

He was riding with his wife, Julie, and their four young children. Did they enjoy it, too?

“Oh, yeah,” he said. “They had a blast.”

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Jeff Schmid, who worked for BNSF for 40 years and in five years of retirement has been working part-time as the special operations coordinator, said one of the most elegant cars on the First Responder Express was specially renovated to accommodate one person.

That would be the late U.S. Rep. Barbara Jordan, a pre-merger member of the board of directors of the Burlington Northern. Built in 1955, the car was remodeled to be accessible to the disabled in 1991 because Jordan was by then in a wheelchair. The car features a long conference table and Jordan’s deluxe sleeping quarters and roll-in bathroom.

Schmid said the train used for the first responders is also used for employee-appreciation trips. This was the only First Responder Express that will visit Montana this year, one of six or seven such trips that will be made across the BNSF network this summer.


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Matt Jones, right, director of BNSF’s State Government Affairs in Montana, chats with Larry Larson of Molt.

Asked whether there was any chance of passenger rail service coming back to southern Montana, Schmid said, with a faint smile, “That’s pretty much up to the states and Amtrak.”

No Amtrak officials were on board, but Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney was, so I asked him whether the issue was something the state might get involved in.

Coincidentally, he said, he was at a meeting in the Flathead Valley last week, where a man broached the same subject with him. The man said there ought to be a passenger train that could run from Fargo, N.D., to Sandpoint, Idaho, where the southern and northern lines converge, then double back to Fargo along the Hi-Line.

Cooney, who used to ride the train from his home in Butte to visit his cousins in Miles City, said it was a “shame” that the southern line is defunct. Passengers trains are still thriving in Europe, he said, but “we have thrown in the towel somewhat.”

But he wasn’t sure there was a role for the state to play.

“Is there an interest or a desire?” he said. “I don’t know.”

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It’s hard to believe, after rolling through the Yellowstone Valley on a beautiful late-spring day, with the countryside as green as it gets and a blue sky streaked with fleets of white clouds, that there isn’t more interest in passenger trains.

On the East Coast, where Amtrak is most viable, passenger trains can be an efficient and economical way to get around. Out here, where the miles are endless and cities are few, it’s a whole different dynamic. Out here it’s probably more of a tourist attraction than a viable travel option.

But if more people could just see it, experience it, live it, maybe that interest and desire mentioned by Cooney would achieve critical mass. That’s another reason to hope that BNSF continues to honor soldiers and the hometown heroes known as first responders.

They get some heartfelt thanks and we lovers of trains gain a few more allies.

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