Transit is very limited in rural areas, where almost everybody has access to an automobile. For the few who do not, the van that runs to the shopping mall or the doctor’s office provides the only opportunity they have to venture beyond the distance they can walk. For people with difficulty walking, it provides the rare (and maybe only) opportunity that many of them have to get out of the house.And what there is sometimes runs on a weekly headway.
For this writer, the trip was an adventure; an opportunity to explore a few towns in a state where cows outnumber people, and which is still celebrating the achievement that its human population now exceeds one million. Given the physical size of the State of Montana, even one million people do not take up much room in such a large area.
Accordingly, Montana has very little public transportation.
There are local bus systems in several of the state’s larger towns, but it is the lifeline service operated by NCM Transit, Northern Montana Interlocal and others that prevents some residents of Montana from being completely housebound.I have vague memories of the Great Northern Railway purchasing a Budd Car for a Great Falls train connecting with the transcontinental services. In my June 1954 Official Guide, the Western Star (in those days the transcontinental railroads generally offered at least two long-distance trains, running about twelve hours apart) took the long way around, Havre - Great Falls - Shelby. As late as the summer of 1967 there were connecting buses to the Empire Builder and Western Star via Shelby for and from points west and via Havre for and from points east. Perhaps, though, one line of pickup trucks is named "Montana" for a reason.
This writer’s trip to Great Falls is probably one that few local residents would ever take. If they are going to Great Falls from Havre or Shelby, they could return home after three or four hours in Great Falls. Anyone actually traveling between Havre and Shelby can go there directly on the train, every day, with a trip time of slightly more than 90 minutes. The local vans took seven hours; four on the highway and three to spend in Great Falls. That was not enough time to take in the entire town. There were other attractions, including a museum about famed Western artist C.M. Russell, and three hours did not provide enough time for anything but the history museum, a quick look at the town, and lunch.
Still, without the local vans that operate twice a week and connect only on Thursdays, the trip which this writer made would have been impossible. Because of the temporary schedule of the Empire Builder train, there was enough time to experience Havre and Shelby, as well. Amtrak and its riders hope that the “Builder” will be back on its old schedule soon.