Great Falls Tribune: Tester gets $166 million for Amtrak. Daily service to return in 90 days

by David Murray

Daily passenger rail service aboard Amtrak will return to Montana’s Hi-Line within the next 90 days, after a bill drafted by Montana Sen. Jon Tester’s secured an additional $166 million in grants for the beleaguered national rail carrier. Tester’s bill was passed by the U.S. Senate along party lines on Saturday, as part of the $1.9 trillion COVID relief package.

Service along Amtrak’s Empire Builder long-distance passenger line, which serves 12 communities along Montana’s Hi-Line, was cut from seven-days a week to just three last October, after ridership dropped to just five-percent of pre-pandemic levels.

On Feb. 23, Tester introduced legislation to reinstate furloughed Amtrak employees and return complete service to the Empire Builder, as well as to the 14 other long-distance routes across the country that Amtrak currently operates.

“Folks on the Hi-Line depend on Amtrak to stay connected, and its full return will boost the economy and create good-paying jobs across the region,” Tester said upon introducing the legislation. “Returning Amtrak service to northern Montana has been one of my top priorities since the service was cut, and I won’t stop fighting until this bill is signed into law by the President and the Empire Builder is fully restored.”

At a hearing last October before the Senate Commerce Committee, Paul Tuss of the Montana Economic Developers Association testified that 121,429 passengers either boarded or disembarked at an Montana Amtrak station in 2019, and that the railroad brings out-of-state visitors to Montana for vacations and for other personal and business reasons that significantly help Montana’s economy.

“Restoring daily service to the Empire Builder and returning ticket agents to Havre and Shelby will help northern Montana recover from the economic calamity of the pandemic,” Tuss said on Monday.

“The Empire Builder keeps families and communities in Montana connected, while supporting good-paying jobs and helping out small businesses,” said Havre Mayor Tim Solomon. “Restoring full service has been a huge priority for us on the Hi-Line, and we are thankful to Senator Tester for defending Northern Montana by bringing full Amtrak service back to the region.

“Great news today to hear that Senator Tester has been successful in restoring Amtrak service from three days to seven days a week,” said Valley County Commissioner John Fahlgren. “Rail passenger service is a critical economic and social connection for the Hi-Line. We depend on this service to connect us with Seattle, Portland, Minneapolis and Chicago.”