Great Falls Tribune: Culbertson on board for Amtrak stop

After a nearly 40-year absence, Amtrak may resume making Culbertson one of its stops along the Empire Builder route.

“It’s another service for the community,” Culbertson Mayor Gordon Oelkers said, adding it was estimated to generate 7,000 riders, with some of them being Canadians.

He said they have the blessing of Amtrak and Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad, which owns the line. However, a BNSF official contacted late Friday afternoon was not immediately able to confirm.

All that’s needed is a depot.

“The track is good and the signals are good,” he said.

It’s hoped the federal government can provide the $2.5 million to build a depot.

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said the company thinks there is a good business reason to stop the train in Culbertson.

“That is the first threshold we cross,” he said. “If it makes business sense, then we talk to the community and where stop should be.”

However, that stop needs a proper place with a platform with the proper length to accommodate the Empire Builder, Magliari said.

“It’s a long train,” he said.

Oelkers said the town has had “amazing support from Amtrak,” adding the town of 1,000 needed its support to get the federal funds to build the depot. He said those funds would likely come out of the federal transportation budget.

The nearest stops are 50 miles away in each direction Oelkers said, with Williston, N.D., to the east and Wolf Point to the west. He added the route provides easy access to Seattle and Minneapolis.

The Empire Builder runs about 2,200 miles daily between Chicago and Seattle.

According to, the Empire Builder was started by Great Northern Railway after World War I (some sources say it started June 11, 1929). It remains the train to take to get to the Pacific Northwest. “The Builder became so popular that it sustained a relatively good ridership until the beginning of Amtrak on May 1, 1971. The carrier retained the train and today it still ranks as one of the most popular long-distance run in Amtrak’s fleet.”

In fiscal year 2015, Amtrak saw a 2.8 percent dip in its Empire Builder ridership, going from 450,932 in fiscal year 2014 to 438,376 in 2015, according to figures posted on the company’s website. Revenue decreased 7.3 percent, from $54.5 million in 2014 to $50.5 million in 2015.

The company said its overall ridership was “roughly even” with 30.8 million passengers, which was 0.1 percent below 2014. Revenues also took a 0.1 percent dip in 2015 to $2,185,536,803 from 2014.

The company noted Amtrak has carried more than 30 million passengers for five years in a row.

Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., joined in local efforts for the stop during Tuesday’s Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation hearing on passenger rail.

Joseph Boardman, Amtrak’s president and chief executive officer, said they will meet with local leaders and discuss modernizing the existing station or building a new station in Culbertson.

Daines secured language in the long-term highway bill that was signed into law by President Barack Obama requiring Amtrak to evaluate options for more Amtrak stops.

Magliari said the Empire Builder goes through the town daily in both directions.

The train may not stop at all on some days as Magliari and Oelkers said train operators will know through electronic ticketing whether Culbertson has passengers who want to board or get off.

They both also said they expect Canadians to drive to town to use the service.

Oelkers said an impact study showed a lot of Canadian residents will drive down from Regina, Saskatchewan, which is 176 miles away to catch the train.

Oelkers, who said Amtrak used to stop in the town until the mid-’70s, said it was not known when the service would start. But the mayor of 18 years vowed to be among the first passengers.

He just couldn’t nail down his destination.

“It depends whether the Seahawks are playing or the Vikings are playing,” he said.