LAUREL — Montana Rail Link President Tom Walsh sat inside a soon-to-be crowded 1916 passenger coach car and looked out the window at the hundreds of people lined up outside, waiting to join him.
As he talked about MRL, its history, its freight operations and its 25th anniversary celebration, Walsh said the employees and their families outside are more than just co-workers.
"That's something that we encourage here," he said. "You spend more time with these people than you do with your own family sometimes. It's a really big part of our lives."
The MRL family celebrated its 25th anniversary in communities across Montana over the weekend by inviting its employees and their families to take a three hour passenger train ride — something normally seen in Montana more than four hours away on the Hi-line — and Sunday, that train rolled into Laurel.
It's the third time MRL has treated its employees to a the rare ride in 15 years, and it goes over well each time.
"It's such a popular event because it does actually allow railroad employees to take their families on the train and give them that real opportunity to actually ride a train," said MRL spokeswoman Lynda Frost.
More than 400 people — 150 of them employees — showed up for the two three-hour rides on the seven-car train to Big Timber and back. The company employs 950 people across the state and held similar events in Missoula, Helena and Livingston.
Five of those people were railroad clerk Jessie Ellison and her family, including her mother. Ellison said she grew up hearing her mother's stories about riding on passenger trains and was excited to finally learn what the hubbub was all about and share the experience with her own kids.
"We've never gotten to do anything like this before," she said. "It's a really nice bonus for all of us."
MRL is an independently operated, 950-employee Washington Company, founded by industrialist Denny Washington, that started in 1987 and is headquartered in Missoula.
It operates more than 100 stations across Montana, Idaho and Washington and has 937 route miles, 1,300 freight cars and 96 locomotives.
Walsh has been employed by MRL since its inception and said the company fosters a sense of family amongst its employees and puts a premium on keeping them happy.
He said that because of that, his story — working for MRL for nearly three decades — is a common one, with many employees spending their entire careers with the company and, in some cases, three generations from a single family working together for the railroad.
"It's a good, solid company to work for," he said. "The benefits that we give them, that we're able to offer, help and while a lot of companies have been slashing them, we've gone the other way."
Railroads have been running through Montana since the 1800s and they've played a vital role in the state's development and growth. With such a historically significant hand in the state's history, the rides have captivated the employees and their families, Walsh said.
"Working for a railroad is different than working somewhere else," he explained. "It's such a big part of Montana's history. So today, what we think of this, is that it's really a family of railroad people coming together."
As people — everyone from babies to grandparents — boarded the cars, with conductors outside to usher them along, the mood was jovial, with kids laughing and chattering while their parents talked to friends, coworkers and family.
"I can't tell you how many times people have said to me, 'Thanks for allowing us to do this,' " Walsh said. "The ability to get on a train with all your coworkers and loved ones, that's the real treat. It really does encompass that family-oriented atmosphere."