Great Falls Tribune: Tester's bill would reverse Amtrak's decision to slash rail service to Montana's Hi-Line

by David Murray

Montana Sen. Jon Tester announced this week that he has introduced legislation to restore long-distance passenger rail service to Montana’s Hi-Line, and to reinstate employees who lost their jobs after Amtrak announced deep service cuts last May.

Beginning Oct. 19, 2020, passenger rail service on Amtrak’s 15 long-distance routes was slashed. This included the Empire Builder, the only route serving Montana. Rail service along the Empire Builder, which makes 12 stops across Montana’s Hi-Line, has now been cut from seven-days a week to just three.

Tester said the service cuts have been harmful to rural communities like Glasgow, Havre, Shelby and Whitefish which rely on regular passenger rail service to access critical healthcare at large urban hospitals, and for whom it provides a large economic boost in tourism.

“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,” Tester said in a news release.

This map shows the various stops and route through Montana of Amtrak’s Empire Builder.
Tester’s bill proposes an additional $166 million in federal funding for Amtrak specifically targeted at restoring a seven-day schedule of long-distance rail service and recalling Amtrak employees who were furloughed because of the service cuts.

“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.

2020 was a disastrous year for national passenger railroad, which only a year before had been on the cusp of showing a (federally subsidized) profit for the first time in its nearly 50-year history.

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Although Amtrak is legally a private for-profit corporation, the federal government controls the company’s operations. It is not a government corporation, but the president appoints the members of its board of directors and its primary stockholder is the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT).

Since its inception in 1971, Amtrak has never generated enough revenue to cover its operating and capital expenses. The company depends upon federal grants to continue operating which, according to a Congressional Research Report, currently amount to about $1.8 billion annually.

Yet even with this mass infusion of cash, Amtrak has consistently been unable to break even. As a result the Amtrak has accumulated a $42 billion backlog of deferred maintenance and modernization projects.

Amtrak’s Empire Builder leaves Malta as a rainstorm rolls in.
Amtrak’s critics have targeted the company’s 15 long-distance routes, including the Empire Builder, for elimination arguing they suffer from low ridership and large operating losses, and for the most part don’t serve America’s fastest growing metropolitan areas at all.

Supporters point out that Amtrak’s long-distance routes provide the only form of passenger train travel in many communities across the contiguous United States, reaching 140 million Americans in 23 states. Their elimination would impact small rural communities particularly hard.

Montana’s entire Congressional delegation has consistently opposed cutting long-distance passenger service. In September 2020, Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) submitted a letter to senate leadership stating that eliminating daily passenger service on the Empire Builder 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.”

The eastbound Amtrak departs Shelby.
By almost any measure, 2019 was a successful year for Amtrak. Company records show Amtrak served 32 million passengers that year – an all-time record – and the company’s adjusted operating loss declined to just $30 million, about 1/16 of what it had been 10 years earlier. The expectation was that Amtrak could, for the first time in its history, have a break even year in 2020.

But then COVID-19 hit. By April 2020 ridership had crashed to less than five-percent of what had been a year earlier. In May 2020 Amtrak President and Chief Executive Officer, William J. Flynn asked Congress for $4.9 billion in an additional supplemental funding or risk dramatic cuts in service nationwide.

Rail services like Amtrak now require passengers to wear masks.
Congress balked at funding such a large request, but Tester was able to help secure $1 billion in additional funding for Amtrak through the CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) with $345 million reserved for long-distance routes like the Empire Builder.

Nonetheless, on June 17, 2020, Flynn announced Amtrak would temporarily cut service on several of its long-distance routes, including the Empire Builder, from seven days to three. The cuts became effective on Oct. 19 and are expected to run through the summer of 2021 at the very least.

Many are skeptical that Amtrak will ever return the long-distance routes to their pre-pandemic schedules.

“Our real concern at this juncture is that the current reduction in service will become permanent and Amtrak in our state and elsewhere will be a less reliable and more inconvenient travel option for Americans,” said Paul Tuss, executive director of Havre-based Bear Paw Development Corporation.

Tina and Mike Sigsby of Dundee, Ore. enjoy the scenery of eastern Montana in the observation car of Amtrak’s Empire Builder train.
Tuss was testifying before a Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation oversight hearing that Tester secured.

He said the Empire Builder adds $327 million annually to the economies of the states in which it operates, and that the federal government spends about $57 million to keep it running. He described it as a $270 million return on the investment.

Tuss said that in 2019, the Empire Builder’s 12 stations in Montana handled 121,429 passengers who boarded or disembarked, and that the railroad brings out-of-state visitors to Montana for vacations and other reasons that significantly help Montana’s economy.

“This level of activity is significant, especially for a rural state,” he said. “Now is not the time to shrink from a commitment this nation has historically had to connect our people and places through a robust passenger rail system.”

Amtrak train in the East Glacier depot
Railroad advocates worry that Amtrak’s diminished service schedule will undermine its popularity with passengers, and could ultimately lead to Amtrak’s demise entirely.

“It is reasonable to expect that at least some riders will refuse to plan their itineraries around the days on which Amtrak is willing to provide a train,” notes an editorial on the “Railway Age” magazine web site. “Most will use their automobiles, while others will either take an airline (if possible), or just not make the trip. If there is a missed connection (an occurrence that happens more often than it should), it would cost a traveler two or three days, not just one.”

“If the trains become unreliable for potential riders, they will become unpopular with members of Congress,” the editorial continues. “That could endanger other Amtrak services, including the NEC (Northeast Corridor, Amtrak’s most popular and profitable route.)

If passed, Tester’s bill would require Amtrak to restore its pre-pandemic schedule of long-distance passenger service within 90 days.