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Rockin' & Rollin' Through Big Sky Country
By Robert W. Bone
LEWISTON, Idaho --
no cannonball express, to be sure. You might call her the
Livingston-Sandpoint Limited. Very limited, in fact. But if you're a
railroad buff or simply enjoy some lovely scenery while traveling at
something less than breakneck speeds, you might develop an enthusiastic
head of steam for a new train called the Montana Daylight.
eclectic choo-choo has chugged out of the past with a line of mismatched
but very comfortable passenger cars. Some of the coaches, typically made
of stainless steel outside and with an interior of different kinds of fine
woods, were first put into service on other lines a half century ago or
more. Now they traverse a 450-mile scenic stretch of track which hasn't
seen anything more glamorous than a string of boxcars for decades.
train uses a major portion of the route traveled by the once-proud
Northern Pacific, and today you can still make out its distinctive
black-and-red, yin-yang symbol affixed to the Platform at Paradise,
Montana, and to various tumbledown brick stations along the route.
Montana Daylight is not in regular passenger service like Amtrak or the
tightly scheduled trains of America's past. Instead, it is a tour train,
one of only two or three in the U.S.
may seem ironic that today one has to take a plane and a bus to catch a
train. But that's the way it is, at least for most passengers. Rail trips
run one-way (east or west) between the charming town of Livingston,
Montana and Sandpoint, Idaho. Most arrangements include flights to or from
Bozeman near one end of the line, and to or from Spokane, Washington, on
the other, then a chartered bus to the depot. You can also get to Bozeman
or Spokane on Amtrak.
Montana Daylight really offers two valuable rewards on its leisurely run
-- scenery and comfort.
For scenery, it provides panoramas of Big Sky country from the mountains
to the prairies. Some of the features that our own little group noticed on
the east-to-west tour were several inviting rivers (including the
Yellowstone and the headwaters of the Missouri), lots of lovely lakes, and
certainly many majestic purple mountains. Signs point out special places
like the site of Montana's first gold strike, the marker for the Last
Spike, where the first northern transcontinental railway was completed in
1883, and, just after emerging from a Rocky Mountain tunnel, the
And how about comfort? First of all, there are no seat belts, beverage
carts, or cramped lavatories. You can relax in wide, fully adjustable
chairs or take a walk any time you want -- perhaps back to the open-air
vestibule between the cars. There you might enjoy a wide-open window. Or
you can climb up to the dome for a big-sky view of Big Sky country. At
around noon, it's dinner in the diner. Well, lunch anyway, and what could
be finer? On the two-day trip our meals on wheels were delicious and
efficiently served by a staff of smiling young people.
are no evening repasts on this particular three-day trip, however. The.
The train parks overnight at Missoula, which turned out to be an
attractive, university town on the Clark Fork River.
good hotel room at Missoula was included, as well as in Bozeman or Spokane
just before the beginning of the trip. But donít plan any tight
connections on the day the journey ends. Depending on circumstances, this
laid-back former flier can be hours late.
did find some kinks in the operation -- literally. An effect called a sun
kink occasionally expands and slightly warps a section of track during the
heat of a summer day. Whenever the engineer spies one of these, he simply
stops the train for as long as it takes for a track crew to hop out and
smooth things out again.
It helps to be stuck in a scenic environment, at least. On our second sun kink on the last day, we just retired to the glass dome, gazed at the nearby river, and poured ourselves a few drinks. Then we enjoyed the sunset, twilight, and moonlight on the Montana Daylight.
IF YOU GO: Currently there are two levels of service on the train, ranging from around $500 up for the basic three-day tour, including two hotel nights. Other arrangements and expanded tours are also available, including one with a dip farther south to Yellowstone National Park. Exact itineraries and prices may change, however. So it would be a good idea to check out Montana Rockies Rail Tours' attractive and detailed web site beginning at
Text and five photos © by Robert W. Bone
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