Great Falls Tribune: Efforts made to prevent cuts to Amtrak Empire Builder rail amid coronavirus pandemic

by Phil Drake

Montana’s congressional delegation is trying to derail plans by Amtrak to deal with impacts of the coronavirus by temporarily reducing runs of its Empire Builder, which glides across the Hi-Line and through northwest Montana and celebrated its 90th anniversary in 2019.

On June 17, Amtrak officials said they will temporarily decrease service from seven days to three for several routes, including the Empire Builder, which runs along the Hi-Line with stations from Wolf Point to Libby. This will be effective Oct. 1 through at least the summer of 2021.

But daily service could be restored if demand improves along its long-distance routes, Amtrak officials said.

William Flynn, Amtrak’s new president and chief executive officer, explained the company’s challenges on Sept. 9 to a U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure subcommittee.

$4.9 billion sought to continue service and avoid furloughs
Amtrak is seeking $4.9 billion in government funding to continue current service levels and avoid furloughs.

He said prior to the coronavirus, the soon-to-be 50-year-old company was in a stronger position than at any time in its history and that revenue, ridership and financial performance “were at record levels.”

“Amtrak was on track to generate passenger revenues exceeding operating expenses in FY 2020 for the first time ever,” Flynn said.

However, ridership fell 97% in a matter of weeks when the coronavirus hit and the company took steps to protect the health of its employees. He said recovery has been slow and ridership is still down by 80% from 2019.

“Our latest projections are that in FY 2020, Amtrak’s revenue loss from ticket sales will be $1.266 billion, which would be only 55% of what it was in FY 2019,” Flynn said.

As a result, Amtrak made several cost-cutting decisions that included reducing service and deferred $600 million in capital projects, and reduced overtime.

“Beginning in October, we will temporarily reduce service on most long-distance routes from daily to three times per week,” Flynn said.

“Like the more significant service reductions we have made on our NEC and state supported routes, these long-distance frequency adjustments will be temporary. As ridership returns, we intend to re-store service frequency to previous levels. We remain committed to our long distance system.

“If Amtrak receives less than $4.9 billion and there is no congressional directive related to long distance service, we will evaluate three metrics to decide in February of next year whether to restore daily service on each affected long-distance route,” he said.

Those metrics include public health, current performance and future demand.

“One thing I want to make absolutely clear: these long distance frequency reductions are temporary,” Flynn said.

And he said: “As ridership returns, we intend to re-store service frequency to previous levels. We remain committed to our long-distance system.

Possible cuts can impact access to national transport in Montana
Flynn said despite COVID-19, the fact has not changed that “intercity passenger rail is the most efficient and the most environmentally responsible way to serve the transportation need of the megaregions throughout the country …”

U.S. Sen. Steve Daines sent a Sept. 21 letter to senate leadership about the cuts, noting it would “decimate rural economies in Montana and leave tens of thousands without daily access to the national transportation network.”

“The Empire Builder provides rural Montanans a safe and reliable mode of transportation to and from major cities, giving them greater access to necessities such as world class health care,” he wrote. “Additionally, it is critical to our tourism economy, bringing thousands each year to visit our pristine wilderness and national parks.”

This map shows the various stops and route through Montana of Amtrak’s Empire Builder.
His is the latest missive from Montana’s three-member congressional delegation asking Amtrak officials to reconsider in which each took a different approach. In 2018, 428,854 customers rode the Amtrak Empire Builder.

On June 26, GOP Rep. Greg Gianforte wrote to William Flynn, president and chief executive officer of Amtrak, and pointed out the reductions could also hurt Montana.

“Reliable access to rail service is important for communities along the Hi-Line,” Gianforte wrote. “Not only is passenger rail an economic driver for the state, it is also an affordable travel alternative. Reduced service threatens the connectivity of Montana’s rural communities.

“I understand that the economic stress from the pandemic creates new challenges for Amtrak,” he wrote. “However, I request that you reconsider a reduction in service as a solution to these challenges.”

Predicted economic impacts of planned route reduction in Montana
Democratic Sen. Jon Tester wrote a July 27 letter to the senate committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, asking that Flynn appear before them.

Tester noted the “devastating impacts of COVID-19 have impacted every corner of American life, and commuting is no different.”

He acknowledges that Amtrak is facing low ridership and decreased revenue.

“Rural service and long-distance routes are in jeopardy, as are thousands of jobs. Long-distance service is critical to connecting folks all over the country, especially in places like Shelby, Montana,” he wrote in his letter.

Daines said the cuts in staff could leave thousands without a job “in the midst of a once in a generation pandemic.”

Daines notes Congress provided Amtrak with $1.02 billion through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act to ease economic impact.

Havre Mayor Tim Solomon called the news of the reductions, even if temporary, “frustrating.”

But he added he understood the hurtful impacts the coronavirus has had on the company.

“I am real concerned about the long term. I am hoping it is short term,” Solomon said.

He said the Empire Builder was a big benefit in a town that does not have many public transportation options.

Routes impacted by planned Amtrak reduction
Other routes being reduced by Amtrak include California Zephyr, Capitol Limited, City of New Orleans, Coast Starlight, Crescent, Lake Shore Limited, Palmetto, Southwest Chief, and Texas Eagle, the Associated Press reported.

According to Amtrak, the Empire Builder was inaugurated by the Great Northern Railway and departed Chicago June 10, 1929, but it was christened the next day in St. Paul, Minn., where the GNR had its headquarters and where its mainline to Seattle began.

It was named for James J. Hill – the “Empire Builder,” who in the late 19th century founded what became Great Northern, Amtrak said in a June 11, 2019, news release marking the line’s 90th anniversary.

In 1979, it became the first overnight train to be assigned bi-level Superliner railcars, Amtrak said.