Once in love with trains, always in love with trains? For some children that is true. For Mark Meyer, the love of trains came a bit later in life.
“I couldn’t decide what I wanted to be when I grew up, so I went to work for Burlington Northern Railroad. I still haven’t grown up. You are only young once, but you can be immature forever,” he said laughing.
And with that job began Meyer’s life-long love of trains and his involvement in one of the country’s oldest and largest rail organizations, the Rail Passengers Association, formerly known as the National Association of Railroad Passengers.
Meyer was born in Cut Bank at what was at that time, Memorial Hospital, which became the “old” nursing home. He is a 1975 Cut Bank High School graduate and even though he left our fair community, his fondness for the town and its people has remained a part of him.
Following high school graduation, Meyer found himself attending Montana State University. He spent two years there and quickly realized college just was not his thing.
He went to work for Burlington Northern Railroad initially as a telegrapher, working in local stations around Montana. He then became a train dispatcher for BN, working in Havre, Billings and Seattle.
In 1995, Burlington Northern Railroad purchased the Santa Fe Railroad and it became BNSF. In that same year, Meyer moved to Fort Worth, Texas and worked in the Locomotive Utilization Group as the North Region Power Manager.
“I covered Minneapolis-St. Paul to the west coast, basically,” he explained. “In this case, ‘power’ refers to locomotive power and our job was to ensure locomotives were available to run the desired trains.”
He worked in that capacity for 15 years and in 2017, he opted for an early retirement and now makes his home in Oregon.
Meyer came by his love of the “rail” thanks to his father, who was a telegrapher in Cut Bank, Shelby, Blackfoot and Valier for a number of years.
“And I followed the history of Amtrak since its inception in 1971, although I have never worked for Amtrak. BN/BNSF and Amtrak are separate entities, but I have dealt with many aspects of Amtrak operations in my roles working for BN and BNSF,” said Meyer.
In the mid-1970s, Meyer found himself wanting to get more involved in the world of trains, more specifically passenger trains, and joined what was then called the National Association of Railroad Passengers, now known as the Rail Passengers Association (RPA).
RPA is the voice for the nearly 40 million users of passenger trains and rail transit.
“We have worked since 1967 to expand the quality and quantity of passenger rail in the United States. Our mission is to work towards a modern, customer-focused national passenger train network that provides a travel choice Americans want. Our work is supported by more than 28,000 individual members nationwide,” explained Meyer.
“I joined RPA in the mid-70s because it was the largest and the only nationwide passenger train advocacy group. I did not become an RPA representative until 2018. Being one requires a lot of time and even travel, which I couldn’t do easily living in Texas. But that changed after retirement,” he said.
Meyer’s interest in rail passenger service came about because of where he grew up. But he also had personal reasons why taking the train for travel was not only convenient, but a less expensive way to get from point A to point B.
“Growing up in northern Montana you understand the importance of rail passenger service. Even when I was a kid, there were few other travel options, other than driving. Given the long distances and bad weather, passenger train service is very valuable in places like Montana’s Hi-Line,” Meyer explained.
He continued, “My personal experience with passenger trains came in the early 1990s when my dad was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. My mother was already in the nursing home in Cut Bank suffering from the early-onset of Alzheimer’s Disease. I was living in the Seattle area at the time and having no relatives or siblings, I took Amtrak every two or three weeks to tend to my dad until I took a leave of absence from work to be with him until his death. Then I continued to take the train to look after my mom. The overnight train trip, especially during the winter, and Montana is big on winter, was infinitely better than driving over five mountain passes.”
That time period proved to Meyer, a thousand times over, the huge value passenger rail service could offer so many.
“Amtrak offers critical access to locations in Montana and North Dakota where there is little other public transport. I believe that passenger trains are inherently superior to other modes of land transport simply because of comfort,” he shared.
“Think about it. Driving, riding a bus or flying in a plane usually entails being in the absolute smallest space possible. It’s a good thing planes are fast because otherwise no one could endure them. Trains offer space to get up and move around and even have amenities like sleeping cars. And for travelers with disabilities, there simply is no other form of transportation that offers the comfort and accessibility that passenger trains do.”
It is not just his love of passenger trains that make him a good advocate, but his understanding of their value and importance, does as well.
“Supporting passenger trains is simply the right thing to do.”
Amtrak, more specifically, the Empire Builder, is celebrating 90 years of continuous operation next month. That train, when it first started running, allowed travel across the United States from the Great Lakes to the Pacific Northwest.
In the 1950s, a new streamlined version of the Empire Builder was put on the rails and to this day, it continues to provide service to destination towns and cities from Chicago, to Minneapolis through North Dakota and Montana, all the way to Washington and Oregon.
It is the birthday of the Empire Builder that Meyer and the RPA are planning on celebrating in Cut Bank at the Rail Passengers Association Northwest Division annual membership meeting on Saturday, May 18 at the Cut Bank Elks Lodge.
“The Northwest Division of RPA includes the states of Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington. Because of the geography and distribution of members, RPA rotates this annual meeting between the states of Montana, Oregon and Washington, every three years,” Meyer said.
Even though it is listed as a membership meeting, anyone and everyone is invited to attend this meeting where passenger rail service is the primary focus. Meeting details, speakers that plan on attending and the fundraising being done, can be found in a related article in this week’s issue.
“I just couldn’t let an opportunity pass to not only celebrate the train’s continuous 90 years of service, but to also, hopefully, send a message to Amtrak that people along the route, especially in America’s outback, still use and value the train,” Meyer stated.
And having a meeting at one of those Amtrak stops along its route, is a perfect way to send that message. And if anyone can get that message out to the powers that be, it is Mark Meyer.