For hundreds of miles there are virgin views of Lake Pend Oreille, the snaking Clark Fork River and towering Rocky Mountains. Wood trestles span chasms of rock and water.
The scenery is of Jurassic Park proportions, minus the dinosaurs. And now a luxury passenger train runs through it all.
“This has been four and a half years in the works and it’s finally rolling,” said David Duncan as his Montana Rockies Daylight train chugged out of Sandpoint on its maiden voyage.
“Riding the rails gives you a totally different perspective, and there are a lot of people in Idaho and Montana who can’t wait to see what’s in their own backyard.”
Scenery enjoyed only by freight train engineers the last 15 years is now on display from the picture windows and glasstop dome cars of the refurbished train.
“These are some of the most thrilling sections of the Northern Rockies,” Duncan said as Lake Pend Oreille filled the picture window behind him. “Amtrak only goes through here at night, so no one ever got to see it.”
Duncan is the general manager of Rail Views Limited. His Portland-based company along with Sandpoint’s Pack River Management and two other partners operate the 242-passenger train.
Starting July 28, the mahogany, teak and brass trimmed railcars will hum passengers along a 556 mile route between Sandpoint and Billings, Mont.
Duncan fired up the train Wednesday for about 50 travel agents, hotel owners, and reporters for a test drive to Paradise. The trek was a throwback to the days when luxury train travel, not airlines, dominated the market.
The red carpet was literally rolled out at the boarding platform. As passengers gawked at mountains, lakes and wobbled down the aisles of the rocking iron horse, white-coated servers passed out mineral water, sodas and gourmet sandwiches.
“I thought it was a magical ride,” said Pack River’s Bobbie Huguenin. “The scenery is so much different when you see it framed through a train window. I think people will be drawn to this.”
Money will also be drawn out of people’s wallets. Riding in luxury isn’t cheap.
A two-day coach class ride from from Sandpoint to Billings costs $399. That’s only one way, but it does include meals on the train and an overnight stay at a hotel in Missoula.
First class treatment, called Montana Club service, starts at $549. It includes buffet lunches and seats in the glass-topped car.
So far, price hasn’t hindered any interest in the iron horse excursions. A series of shorter train rides that run from Paradise to Livingston, with a stop at Yellowstone National Park, sold out in 13 days.
Sherill Tedder, who operates a hotel in Missoula and was along for the ride Wednesday wasn’t surprised.
“This is incredible. This is more than what the brochures promised,” she said. “I used to ride the train as a kid. They have a lot of romance . . . for me, as I’m sure it does for many others.”
Duncan calls the train a cruise ship on wheels. It’s relaxing and there’s no way you can beat it for sightseeing on land, he says.
The train is loaded with amenities. Teak-lined sleeper cars come complete with their own privy, sink, antique wall-mounted fans and, of course, a service button to summon a porter.
Each of the renovated cars cost about $500,000.
The passenger liner also includes a dining car, lounge car and a car with a television and stereo. No alcohol is served or allowed on board. Liability insurance was expensive and difficult to get, Duncan said. The price would have skyrocketed if alcohol was allowed.
In fact, the train would have been in operation two years ago if weren’t for insurance negotiations, Duncan said. That’s where Schweitzer Mountain Resort stepped in and helped land a package in conjunction with its ski hill operations.
The train runs on Montana Rail Link lines. Boarding is done in Ponderay, just east of Sandpoint. Duncan wanted to use the Amtrak station in the city or even board in Spokane but that wasn’t possible. Too many agencies own parcels of track and the train traffic was too heavy to contend with, he said.
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