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Tester, Daines, economic leaders press Amtrak president on cuts to Empire Builder

Whitefish Depot Amtrak
Posted at 9:24 AM, Oct 23, 2020
and last updated 2020-10-23 11:24:42-04

MISSOULA — Passenger rail service across Montana took a hit this week when Amtrak made good on its proposal to cut the Empire Builder and other long-distance routes from seven days to three – a move Montana’s two senators described as troubling.

Amtrak President and CEO William Flynn on Wednesday said the route reductions were necessary to address a sharp drop in revenue tied to decreased ridership during the pandemic.

“Failure to implement these difficult actions would have resulted in the company consuming about $250 million each month given the reduced level of ridership and existing level of operations,” Flynn said. “There’s no plan or agenda to make these adjustments permanent.”

During a hearing before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines, along with Sen. Marie Cantwell, D-Wash., said the cuts were concerning, especially for states that rely on Amtrak for jobs and transportation.

“I’ve been particularly stunned by the Trump administration’s annual efforts to gut Amtrak,” Tester said. “The Trump administration fought to end long-distance service, which would have meant the end of the Empire Builder in Montana. Since then, they’ve attempted to cut the budget in half, leading us to where we are today as Montanans lose service. It’s unacceptable.”

Paul Tuss, executive director of the Bear Paw Economic Development Corporation, which represents five Montana counties and two Indian nations on the Hi-Line, said the Empire Builder plays a vital role in the state’s rural economy.

Hi-Line residents use the service to access advanced medical care in Minneapolis and Seattle. The route also brings visitors to Montana for vacation and other endeavors. Last year, the 12 Amtrak stops in Montana saw more than 120,000 passengers either board or disembark the train.

According to the Rail Passengers Association, the Empire Builder contributes $327 million to the economies in the states in which it operates. The federal government historically subsidizes the route at around $57 million a year, Tuss said.

“The $270 million net positive is a return on investment that’s noteworthy, and it clearly validates the federal government’s investment in this route,” Tuss said. “Unfortunately, despite the significant return on investment the Empire Builder has demonstrated in years past, daily service on this route has been eliminated.”

Amtrak’s reduction in service will make things worse, not better, Tuss added. It could also make efforts to re-establish the old North Coast Hiawatha route across southern Montana more challenging unless Congress invests in the nation’s passenger rail system.

“Cuts like this only lead to more negative numbers, potentially further justifying deeper cuts in the future,” Tuss said. “We all know it’s far more difficult to establish a service later once it’s been eliminated. Our real concern at this juncture is that the current reduction in service will become permanent and that Amtrak in our state and elsewhere will be a less reliable and more inconvenient travel option for Americans.”

Flynn said Amtrak delivered a record performance in 2019, and 2020 was shaping up to be another banner year for passenger rail. But when the pandemic hit, ridership plummeted by 97%, he said.

In February, just before COVID-19 shut down the economy, Amtrak carried more than 80,000 passengers a day. By April, it carried fewer than 4,000 passengers. This week, Flynn said, Amtrak had 17,000 daily passengers.

As a result, revenue is down more than 80%. Flynn said Amtrak’s Fiscal Year ’21 forecast will require up to $4.9 billion in total funding.

“Unfortunately, Congress has not passed an FY21 appropriates bill, but instead passed a Continuing Resolution through Dec. 11,” Flynn said. “This CR, coupled with no COVID emergency funding, is very concerning to Amtrak given our dramatic revenue loss during this pandemic.”

While Republicans and Democrats in Congress remain at odds over a new relief bill and have not settled on any agreeable compromise, Tester and Daines – as do others in the Senate – want funding for Amtrak included in a new COVID bill.

In Washington state, Cantwell said 30% of the Amtrak workforce is already facing furloughs and thousands more will see their jobs threatened. The economy “will lose billions” if Amtrak support isn’t included in a stimulus bill.

Daines offered similar sentiments.

“Daily service on the Empire Building is essential to providing Montanans access to healthcare, and it’s critical to our local economy, as Sen. Cantwell articulated, by bringing thousands each year to visit our communities, our pristine wilderness and our national parks,” Daines said. “I remain hopeful Congress can come together to pass a bipartisan relief bill, which I will fight to ensure includes adequate funding for Amtrak, and a guarantee on returning staff and daily service.”

In a press call on Thursday morning, Tester said the “skinny” bill fronted by Senate Republicans included no funding for Amtrak.

“My Republican colleagues in the Senate, as well as the Trump administration, have made it clear as crystal that they have no intention of providing Amtrak with enough funding to continue serving the Hi-Line,” Tester said. “We need to have another COVID package. Yet (Sen. Mitch) McConnell still puts up packages that are inadequate.”

The reduction to Amtrak’s long-distance routes also serves as a blow, at least temporarily, to efforts to reestablish the North Coast Hiawatha route across southern Montana.

Members of the upstart Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority said this week that maintaining the Empire Builder and bringing back the North Coast Hiawatha isn’t an “either or proposition.”

For now, at least, efforts to save the Empire Builder and restore service to seven days a week has moved to the front of the state’s passenger rail discussion.

“A safe and reliable passenger rail system in our country is critically important,” Tuss said. “Now is not the time to shrink from the commitment this nation has historically had to connect our people and places through a robust passenger rail system.”