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Luck, determination, and another way out of Cut Bank, part two

Posted by Malcolm Kenton
on Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Continued from yesterday's blog post:

I had known from previous Builder trips that the nearest commercial airport for much of the central part of the route was in Great Falls, MT. I checked for flights from there to Seattle, finding that there were still seats on a 3:30 PM nonstop, and that the weather had not impeded other flights from departing that morning. I also discovered that Golden Triangle Transit, a cooperative of three small county bus agencies, offered two round-trips between Cut Bank, Shelby and Great Falls on Mondays and Thursdays only. Luckily, it was a Monday.  The last-minute airfare was $367, which we each decided was worth it in order to salvage our plans for the week in the Pacific Northwest. We knew that Amtrak would get us to Seattle eventually, but not without what we assumed would be several more hours, maybe a day or more, on a train that would run out of food, water and usable toilets and then a long bus ride.

View of the snowbound East Glacier Park, MT station from the window of our stranded Builder around 5:30 AM MST on Feb. 6, 2017. All photos by Malcolm Kenton.
Just after we placed our breakfast orders, word was passed that once an eastbound freight train moved past us, we would be pulled onto a siding a few hundred feet east of the station. I walked back to where the conductor was letting coach passengers off to smoke to ask if it would still be possible to leave the train if we desired after pulling back to the siding, and he said no. I then told a coach attendant about the bus and flight I had found out about, and she made a P.A. announcement offering it as an option for those willing to exit the train immediately. I hustled back to the diner, where our breakfasts had just been served, and told my friend we needed to get off the train quickly. 

The dining car server kindly gave us plastic covers for our omelets and a large plastic bag to carry them in. We then quickly packed up all the clothes and other items that had been spread around our roomette. When we disembarked five minutes later onto a platform covered by about five inches of snow and went into the waiting area, we were soon joined by ten fellow passengers who had also decided to try their luck with Plan B,  just as the train began creeping eastward into the siding. These included a woman who was anxious about making it to Phoenix to meet her family for a trip to Belize (she was supposed to fly there from Spokane). 

The gas station on the west end of downtown Cut Bank where ten Amtrak refugees waited 100 minutes for the Golden Triangle Transit bus. The outside temperature was around 0 F.
Calls were made to three rental car companies in town, none of which had a large enough vehicle available for a one-way rental to Great Falls. I called Golden Triangle Transit to make sure they were running, and the man at their Cut Bank office promised that they were. Around 10:00, we started walking a half mile west on Main Street to the Town Pump gas station, the bus’s nearest designated pick-up point to the Amtrak station. After a hour and a half of standing inside the convenience shop, a 20-seat van-bus appeared right on schedule at 11:40 AM. Our motley crew of Amtrak escapees piled on and, despite making several other scheduled stops, our group were the day’s only passengers. 

We changed at the Shelby Amtrak station for another nearly identical van-bus, and the driver maintained nearly normal speed going south on Interstate 15 in spite of very challenging driving conditions, with only one clear lane, blowing snow and passing trucks causing temporary whiteouts. After a very shot snack and restroom stop at another Town Pump in Conrad, MT, we were dropped off at the Great Falls International Airport terminal at 2:15 PM. Almost three hours later (after a 90-minute delay due to snow in Seattle), we were taking off in a Horizon Air Bombardier Q400 turboprop that had us at Sea-Tac just before 6:00 PM Pacific on Monday, just four hours later than the train would have gotten us there had it made it through Marias Pass.

The Northern Transit Interlocal (d.b.a. Golden Triangle Transit) bus that took us from Shelby to Great Falls Airport, at a rest stop at a Town Pump in Conrad, MT on Feb. 6, 2017.
In spite of the earlier snow and copious amounts of rain over the course of the week, the rest of our travel plans went off without a hitch (though mudslides forced the bustitution of Amtrak trains between Seattle and Everett starting on Thursday). Our fellow passengers who opted to stay on the train in Cut Bank eventually arrived in Seattle at 10:00 AM Wednesday, after spending Monday night in Shelby (to where the train had backed up further) either on the train or in a hotel and being bussed on Tuesday the long way from Shelby to Whitefish via Helena and Missoula, there to board a consist that had been stranded on its way east and was turned (as was the consist we departed to bring bussed passengers from Whitefish east) and departed Whitefish just about on-schedule for train 7.

Upon returning to DC, I called Amtrak Customer Relations to explain what happened, and was offered a $500 Transportation Voucher for future travel (I had redeemed Amtrak Guest Rewards points for my friend’s and my tickets). We were very fortunate that an alternative way out of Cut Bank was available in spite of the weather, and that we could afford the significant additional cost, but we feel for the dozens of fellow passengers who had no choice but to spend 48 hours longer than planned stuck on a stopped train and then taking a long bus ride. I’m certain many of them have vowed never to ride an intercity train again, but the experience has not dampened my appetite for train travel. It’s just a matter of fate — if we had departed DC just 24 hours earlier, we would have made it through and arrived in Seattle 45 minutes late.

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