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By Breanna Roy of KPAX News - It used to be the nation's major mode of transportation, but today passenger trains are not as practical for timely travel. Yet the railroad industry still has a purpose today.
The steam engine train chugged into Montana in the late 1800s, speeding up the state's economy for lumber and other raw materials.
With tracks laid out through Montana's major cities, train was the way to travel in those days.
"In the old days, in the early days of railroading, passengers were a very big part of why the railroads existed," Montana Rail Link President Thomas Walsh said. "And today, that's, especially in the western part of the United States, that's not why we exist."
Today, trains' primary function is to haul freight: from coal to cement, lumber to diesel and windmill blades to Boeing 737 fuselages, trains still move the building blocks of our society.
"I think Montana is in a unique position with our raw materials that there is increased demand domestically and internationally for those commodities and I think that will benefit the shippers of Montana," Montana Rail Link Director of Sales and Marketing Jim Lewis said.
Montana Rail Link owns and operates around 1,000 miles of railroad from Huntley, Montana to Sandpoint, Idaho. It's the same route originally built by the Northern Pacific in the late 1800s.
"The forefathers before us did a great job of laying out the lines because very little has changed as far as the routes," Montana Rail Link Vice President of Operations Mike Lemm said. "We just have improved the infrastructure over the years."
None of the pieces that make up today's track are original: railroads constantly replace rail ties, spikes and steel rail based on how many tons have gone over the tracks or how old the pieces are. But the tracks you see today are in the same spot and measure the same dimensions you would've seen 100 years ago: 4' 8 ½".
"It's standard gauge," Walsh said. "It's been that way for a long, long time."
But once you're inside the cab of a locomotive, you can start to see how much trains have evolved: the controls and displays are now digital.
"There's a black box like on plane," trainmaster Mike Mattson said. "So I can find out exactly what the engineer was doin' 100 miles ago, 200 miles ago, 500 miles ago. I don't know if you would say it's as advanced as an airplane, but from a locomotive standpoint they've come a long way."
And with countless upgrades to improve efficiency, one diesel engine can pull a lot more cars.
"If you go way back in history, you would've had trains that were probably 10 cars long. The equipment wasn't sophisticated enough to do anything different than that. And in today's world we have, you know, an average train size might be 100 cars long," Walsh said.
"We can move one ton of freight, 484 miles on one gallon of diesel. And that's significantly different than, let's say, a truck, could handle the same freight," he added.
An entire dispatch center in Missoula remotely controls Montana Rail Link's signals across the state. More and more specialized jobs are redefining the 'railroader.'
"The old stereotype of a guy who goes out and does backbreaking labor with a hammer or a shovel, those days are over," Montana Rail Link Chief Engineer Randall Gustin said. "We have highly-trained professionals doing very technical work in the track department to maintain this structure. It's not all just manual labor anymore."
From the outside, trains still give us a glimpse of the old days, but their gradual improvements have proven to keep the railroad industry up to speed with society.
"It's a slow-paced growth model," Walsh said. "I mean, we're not like Microsoft, we're not like Apple. We're not gonna come out with the next 'gee whiz' thing that's gonna all of a sudden make us four-times more valuable and make us all sorts of money, but we're gonna slowly do better every year."
And with a steady pattern like that, railroaders say their industry is on track to last another century.
"We really have a wonderful future, but our future is basically, more the same, getting better an inch at a time."