Passenger rail advocates are sounding the alarm that President Donald Trump’s proposed budget could greatly reduce passenger rail service in the United States and completely eliminate long-distance trains, such as Amtrak’s Empire Builder through Montana.
The Trump administration has proposed cutting transportation spending by $2.4 billion, a move that would eliminate Amtrak service in 220 communities, including 12 in Montana, according to the National Association of Railroad Passengers. Barry Green, NARP’s Montana representative, said Trump’s budget proposes some of the most drastic cuts to passenger rail service he has ever seen.
“This plan completely forgets rural America,” Green said. “There are limited transportation options on Montana’s Hi-Line and it would be devastating for the communities here to lose the Empire Builder.”
The Empire Builder has operated daily between Chicago and Seattle since June 1929, first by Great Northern Railway and later Amtrak. It has been Montana’s only passenger train since 1979.
If Trump’s proposed budget were enacted, Amtrak service would only be available along the Northeast Corridor, around Chicago and on the West Coast. While some short-distance trains in the Northeast and elsewhere cover their own costs, the long-distance trains often run in the red.
Dylan Boyle, director of the Whitefish Visitors and Convention Bureau, said the Empire Builder is an important driver of tourism in the Flathead Valley and that tourism officials frequently work with Amtrak to promote the area. In 2016, nearly 56,000 people took the train to and from Whitefish, a 12 percent increase over the previous year.
“For a lot of visitors, Whitefish is synonymous with the Empire Builder,” Boyle said.
For other communities, particularly those along Montana’s remote Hi-Line, the Empire Builder is the only form of public transportation, said Blackfeet Tribal Business Council Chairman Harry Barnes.
“This is flyover country, and if Amtrak were to suspend service, that would impact our communities,” Barnes said.
Green said Trump’s budget contradicts the president’s campaign promise to invest in infrastructure, including rail. He said while the entire Amtrak system is in dire need of investment, the need is most noticeable on the long-distance routes where most of the locomotives are nearly 20 years old and the passenger cars are 30 to 40 years old.
Green and other NARP members will be heading to Washington D.C. to talk to Congressional leaders about the importance of passenger rail service in rural states later this month. Both of Montana’s U.S. senators have expressed support for Amtrak and said the proposed cuts would disproportionately impact rural states. Last week, Democratic Sen. Jon Tester co-signed a letter with two-dozen other senators to the Appropriations Subcommittee responsible for Amtrak funding, urging them to invest in the service rather than reduce it. In a statement to the Beacon, Republican Sen. Steve Daines said he had expressed his support for long-distance trains in a recent meeting with Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao.
Despite having bipartisan support, Green said the threat of cuts to Amtrak and its long-distance trains is serious.
“I’d like to think we have support in Congress, but I’m not going to rest on my laurels,” he said. “People interested in keeping passenger rail service in Montana need to contact their representatives to let them know how important it is to them.”