Glasgow Courier: Amtrak Service Cutbacks Impact Valley County

by Gwendolyne Honrud

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, travel and tourism have suffered as people across the nation limit their travel and social interaction. Among the big-name businesses hit is Amtrak, which has seen ridership drop 80 percent this year. Several months ago, the rail service announced it would be limiting services with the Empire Builder line set to drop from daily trips to thrice-weekly runs beginning Monday, Oct. 19. The Chicago-Seattle run will operate Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays and the westbound train originating in Portland or Seattle will run on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

While residents in northeastern Montana are used to limited public transportation options – Cape Air being the only other option – these changes will impact more than leisure options for many in the area. One local business has already faced the impacts of Amtrak’s cost-saving measures. Glasgow Flower & Gift had been using Amtrak as a shipper since 2005 and as of last month, Amtrak temporarily halted freight service, forcing owner Peggy Aakres to seek out alternate wholesalers and shipping options.

Approximately three months ago, Amtrak began cutting back on Aakres’ loads. She uses a wholesaler in Minnesota for her flowers and glassware and the rail service offered the timeliest delivery. The initial cutback limited daily loads to 250 pounds per order. On Sept. 1, Aakres was notified that Amtrak would be discontinuing freight service and her last freight shipment would be the week of Sept. 15. Due to the change, Glasgow Flower & Gift is now limited to a once-a-week delivery truck. Aakres explained that being limited to single delivery has forced her to change her ordering habits. “If I get hit with funerals or something at the end of the week, I’m out of flowers. I can’t get any more flowers until the next Monday,” she said.

While Aakres said that flower shops all along the Hi-Line are impacted by the service changes, the potential impact to the region is much further reaching than just her business. In discussing the impact on the flower shop, she said that in her opinion, Bob Sivertsen’s letter to the editor “hit the nail on the head.” In that letter, Sivertsen opined that the move to re-establish a southern rail line in the southern portion of Montana would lead to the eventual elimination of the passenger service along the Hi-Line (See Sept. 30, 2020, edition of The Glasgow Courier for the full letter.)

She expressed concerns to the long-term sustainability of the community if it were to be cut off from public transportation, should Amtrak divert its services to a southern line. “The larger cities in the southern part of the state have access to public transportation. They have large airports. They have buses. They have the interstate. They have all of these things,” she said. “And yet, us up here, our only real mode of transportation, public transportation to go east or west is the Amtrak.”

Aakres posted a public plea on Glasgow Flower & Gift’s Facebook page, asking residents to contact their congressional representatives about the proposed cutbacks. In that post, she pointed out that people traveling to Seattle or Minneapolis for health care also rely on Amtrak.

One Glasgow resident who is familiar with the importance of Amtrak for medical use is Nick Dirkes, who is the director of planning at Frances Mahon Deaconess Hospital in Glasgow. While he can speak to the importance of Amtrak in the recruitment of staff and personnel to the “Middle of Nowhere,” Dirkes can also attest to the role the rail service can play for patients.

Several years ago, Dirkes was diagnosed with an acoustic neuroma, a tumor on his auditory nerve. Given the severity of the diagnosis, though he said it was “not a worst-case scenario,” he was forced to seek care outside of what could be offered in Montana. Dirkes settled on Seattle because of the research portion at the University of Washington. Ease of travel was also a factor. He traveled to Seattle where he underwent 16 hours of surgery, followed by 10 days recovery in the hospital.

Dirkes traveled back to Glasgow on Amtrak, with his mother who was his caregiver. “It was a game changer for me, especially after surgery,” he said. Dirkes explained that after his surgery, he experienced severe balance issues. “I essentially had to learn to walk again,” he said. “Negotiating through an airport, airport security, the stairs on Cape Air, that was just a bridge too far for me.” He also noted that flying and sitting in an airline seat would have proved nearly impossible for him, even though a flight would have taken less time, not accounting for an extra night spent in Billings before catching a flight or driving to Glasgow.

“I can tell you, the train was the most restful 24 hours I’d had since surgery,” Dirkes said. “It was restorative.” In addition to alleviating his physical discomfort, traveling by train also allowed his mother to focus on caregiving, rather than stressing about driving at the same time. Dirkes believes that without Amtrak, his recovery would have taken much longer.

Looking at a reduced Amtrak schedule, Dirkes points out many considerations and costs that people will now need to undertake. For patients seeking medical care in Seattle or Rochester, Minn., scheduling appointments and surgery is done on the hospital’s timeline. Patients have little to no say in when a surgery will take place. A reduced Amtrak service schedule could leave patients and caregivers with several extra days in an out-of-state location. “Lodging is not cheap there,” he said, noting that any additional time spent in the cities could cause further financial strain on a patient.

Dirkes also pointed out that from a professional standpoint, Amtrak has played a critical role in recruiting and retaining hospital staff and providing quality health care to Valley County residents. He pointed out that having available transportation in and out of the area, especially for travelers who prefer to avoid air travel, has played a key role in several hires for FMDH. He noted that the hospital currently has at least one doctor who lives in Seattle and works here 10 days a month who uses Amtrak to travel back and forth. As such, changes to the Amtrak schedule will likely have a direct impact on scheduling at the hospital.

Beyond the local impacts, the Rail Passengers Association says that Amtrak’s service reduction will cost Montanans $38 million annually. Amtrak is lobbying Congress for additional federal funding, $2.9 billion in supplemental funding on top of the $2.4 billion proposed in a House of Representatives bill. Amtrak has furloughed approximately 2,000 employees as their business is at about 25 percent of pre-COVID levels.

Senator Jon Tester had announced he had secured a Senate Commerce Committee oversight hearing on the future of Amtrak. The hearing was to be held Oct. 7, but has been postponed due to the recess of the Senate until Oct. 19. No new date has been been scheduled for the hearing.

“The truth of the matter is, Amtrak keeps Montana’s Hi-Line communities connected to the rest of the country while providing jobs and revenue to folks in places like Shelby, Havre, and Glasgow,” said Tester in a press release. “The coronavirus pandemic has devastated Amtrak ridership, and looming cuts to long-distance lines like the Empire Builder are threatening the livelihood of thousands of Montanans.” The hearing, when it is held, is set to discuss the oversight of funding allocated to Amtrak in the CARES Act and the future of long-distance rail services across the country.