Amtrak urged to not reduce Empire Builder service in Treasure State

A business leader from the Hi-Line joined Montana’s two senators on Wednesday in urging a top Amtrak official to reconsider temporary reductions made to daily rail service in the Treasure State, saying it is a critical lifeline for rural residents.

And they got some help from a “neighbor,” a senator from Washington who argued that daily train service is a big benefit to help people enjoy Montana’s Glacier National Park.

Amtrak’s Empire Builder makes its way through Montana.
But Amtrak President William J. Flynn told the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, that the current ridership rates, which took a 97% hit in March due to the coronavirus outbreak, could not sustain service levels and also said the passenger rail provider was seeking $4.89 billion in COVID-19 relief funds from Congress to reassess the situation in February and hopefully return service levels.

“But I want to be very clear, these adjustments are temporary, there is no plan or agenda to make these adjustments permanent,” he said. “Many of your states benefit from long distance service … I have heard the concerns very loud and clear.”

He said the board is 100% committed to the long distance network and its future.

Democrat Sen. Jon Tester and Republican Sen. Steve Daines testified about daily cuts made Oct. 19 by Amtrak to three days a week, saying it had a negative impact among communities along Montana’s Hi-Line.

They both said the Empire Builder is “essential” to Montana’s local economies and access to health care. They were joined by Paul Tuss, executive director of Havre-based Bear Paw Development Corp., a 17,811-square-mile economic development district that includes five counties and two Indian nations. He said many of the communities the district serves are not only rural, but considered frontier.

“And running through it all, is the Empire Builder, one of Amtrak’s most successful long-distance routes,” Tuss said.

Paul Tuss, executive director, Bear Paw Development Corp., testifies about Amtrak on Wednesday via computer to a congressional committee.
The Empire Builder has stops in 12 communities and has proven to be a lifeline for residents. He said it is used for access to advanced medical care in Minnesota and Washington. He said it also takes people to work and brings families together.

Tuss said it also brings out-of-state residents to Montana for vacations and other reasons that significantly help Montana’s economy.

He said it hauls 55,000 people annually to Whitefish, which is the busiest stop for the Empire Builder in the state, adding to the area’s tourism trade. He noted the stop’s proximity to Glacier National Park and Flathead Lake.

Tuss said in 2019, the 12 stations handled 121,429 passengers who boarded or disembarked from the Empire Builder.

“This level of activity is significant, especially for a rural state,” he said.

Tuss said it has been estimated that the Empire Builder adds $327 million to the economies of the states in which it operates and the federal government spends about $57 million to keep it running.

He said that is a $270 million return on the investment.

He said the reduction in service would hurt Montana residents, making few options available and he feared the route would not return to its pre-pandemic level. He said the cuts will be reflected in less ridership and justify future cuts.

“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,” Tuss 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,” he said.

William Flynn, president and chief executive officer of Amtrak, testifies Wednesday before a Senate subcommittee.
Flynn said Amtrak carried 80,000 daily passengers in February, and by April it was 4,000 a day. Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, Amtrak was on its way to a record year in 2020. He said on Tuesday there were 17,000 passengers.

He said the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Ac helped Amtrak get through 2020.

Flynn said Amtrak expects needing $4.9 billion in 2021 to invest in the network and address congressional priorities as employee furloughs and daily long-distance service.

He said Congress has not passed an FY 2021 appropriations bill. He said the House has provided $2.4 billion for Amtrak, but it awaits Senate approval.

“However, given that nothings has been enacted, we need to be prudent and address the situation at hand,” Flynn said, adding the company is adjusting service and workforce levels.

Flynn said Amtrak is committed to returning furloughed workers as soon as possible and has provided no-cost health coverage during this period.

At the beginning of the hearing, Tester called the Empire Builder the backbone of Montana’s rural communities.

“The truth of the matter is our state cannot afford to lose the critical services that Amtrak provides,” he said.

He said the Trump administration “fought to end long-distance service which would have meant the end to the Empire Builder in Montana. Since then, they have attempted to cut the budget in half, leading to where we are today as Montanans lose service. This is unacceptable and is hurting our economy.”

Daines said he also was concerned about the impact of the reductions.

“In Montana, the Empire Builder is essential to the local economy and provides folks along the Hi-Line their only access to the national transportation network,” he said.

He said he led a bipartisan effort opposing the reductions in June, which included support from both labor unions and passenger associations.

Daines said he sent a letter to Senate leadership last month noting the Empire Builder is essential to providing Montanans access to world-class health care and is critical to local economies.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said she was at a Glacier National Park hotel and saw a group of people come in the door.

“Where are all these people coming from?” she wondered. “Oh they just got off Amtrak.”

“So, if you don’t have Amtrak service to Glacier National Park you’re going to have a problem,” she said, adding she would not like to see service cut and then it takes 15 years to reestablish.

The committee did not take a vote Wednesday.