Havre Daily News: Tester pushes to restore Amtrak furloughed employees, full service to Hi-Line

by Tim Leeds

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester announced Tuesday that he has introduced legislation to restore cut service and furloughed employees that Amtrak cut last year after the pandemic hit, saying it would bring people back to work and restore Amtrak service to Montana’s Hi-Line communities by bringing back complete long-distance service to routes like the Empire Builder.

“Long-distance Amtrak service creates good paying jobs on the Hi-Line, generates revenue for Montana’s frontier communities, and keeps folks connected with family and friends across the country,” Tester said in a release. “These cuts were an unacceptable attack on rural America, and my legislation will right that wrong by reinstating Montana’s furloughed Amtrak employees and restoring full long-distance service to the Empire Builder. Our state has been hit hard by the pandemic, and my bill will help put our economy back on track and get Montanans back to work.”

Tester’s release said his legislation would reverse the cuts imposed by Amtrak late last year, which furloughed Montana jobs and reduced service on the Empire Builder from seven days per week to three-a move that Tester vehemently opposed.

Tester secured a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on the cuts last year, inviting Havre’s Paul Tuss, executive director of Bear Paw Development Corporation, to testify about how critical long-distance rail is to rural and frontier economies in Montana and across the country.

A spokesman for Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., said he supports the effort, which is why he’s introduced and worked on similar legislative efforts. Daines’ office is reviewing Tester’s bill now.

Montana Rail Passengers Association notes in an article about the Senate Commerce Committee hearing at which Tuss spoke that then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., never brought Daines proposed amendment to a continuing funding resolution to restore Amtrak service, which the association supported, to a vote in the Senate.

A spokesperson for Rep. Matt Rosendale, R-Mont, said the representative does not have any comment on the bill at this time.

Tester’s release said that, as a member of a community serviced by the Empire Builder, he knows how critical Amtrak is to Montana’s Hi-Line and has fought to defend it. He recently helped secure $1 billion for Amtrak in the most recent COVID-19 relief package, with $345 million reserved for long-distance routes including the Empire Builder. He also worked to restore ticket agents in Amtrak stations in Havre and Shelby, and grilled former Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson over how the railroad planned to maintain passenger service in rural America in the face of the previous administration’s proposal to cut 25 percent of the agency’s funding in Fiscal Year 2020.