Commerce on Track

By Beacon Staff

In 2003, R.L. Banks and Associates completed a study for the Montana Department of Transportation and two other state agencies analyzing the economic impact of Amtrak in Montana.

The report concluded, among other findings, that Amtrak’s Empire Builder train route is “an essential transportation service for which there is, by and large in most of the Montana communities served, no reasonable alternative.” The study also estimated that the Empire Builder brought in nearly $14 million in revenue to the state annually, boosting local economies and promoting tourism.

The Empire Builder is a long-distance daily train route running between Chicago and Seattle, with 12 stops along Montana’s hi-line. Marc Magliari, Amtrak’s spokesperson, said it’s the national rail company’s busiest overnight train.

R.L Banks and Associates was commissioned to conduct the study because the federal government was considering eliminating Amtrak’s subsidies at the time. Since then, Amtrak’s impact has only grown, with ridership increasing in Montana for five straight years before taking a dip last year. But through the first half of 2010, ridership is on pace to eclipse previous highs.

And the busiest station of the Empire Builder’s 12 stations in Montana is, by far, Whitefish.

“Amtrak’s a great thing for Whitefish and it always has been,” said Chris Schustrom, innkeeper at the Garden Wall Inn. “It’s extremely important.”

Air travel to Montana is often expensive, and auto travel across the state’s vast geography adds up fast as well. Schustrom said, “our biggest challenge is actually transportation, getting people to Whitefish.”

When gas prices go up, passenger train service becomes more viable, especially in the more remote hi-line towns that have no other form of public transportation. In these towns, Montanans often use Amtrak to visit family, go to out-of-state medical appointments, travel to and from college, go shopping in bigger towns and for other basic services. Airports aren’t generally nearby.

“In Columbia Falls, the Whitefish area, there are other (transportation) options, but for other places on the route there aren’t,” Magliari of Amtrak said.

In 2008, the peak year for the Empire Builder, a total of 167,455 people got on or off a train at Montana’s stations. Of that total, 72,207 passed through Whitefish. The next busiest station was Shelby with 18,881, followed by Havre with 17,759. Two stations are seasonal, with Browning operating in only the winter and East Glacier operating only in the summer.

Jan Metzmaker, executive director of the Whitefish Convention and Visitor Bureau, said her organization has a memorandum of understanding with Amtrak. The bureau includes Amtrak in its promotional efforts and works out special packages.

For instance, last winter Amtrak offered a deal for ski season, with 20 percent off of train tickets to Whitefish only. Metzmaker said the offer generated $126,000 in revenue for Amtrak in ticket sales alone, while boosting the local tourism economy.

Metzmaker hopes to work out that deal again this winter. Also, as part of a nationwide effort to promote passenger train travel in the shoulder season, people can buy one adult ticket at full fare and get a second at half price for travel between Sept. 7 and Dec. 10, with discounts available for children. Tickets must be purchased before Sept. 30.

A special deal might be the difference for someone unfamiliar with train travel but still curious.

“You hand them this coupon and this seals the deal,” Metzmaker said.

During winter, Metzmaker encourages skiers to travel by train, particularly if they’re in groups. If you can’t get enough seats on a flight for the whole group, “you lose all of that business.”

“You can stick everybody on a train,” Metzmaker said.

Joe Unterreiner, president of the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce, said Amtrak’s influence in Northwest Montana extends well beyond Whitefish. On a personal level, Unterreiner said he uses it, as does his son to travel to and from college in Spokane. On a professional level, Unterreiner said businesses throughout the Flathead are boosted by the Amtrak station.

“It’s a benefit to everybody in the Flathead Valley,” Unterreiner said. “We consider it a key part of transportation in the valley.”

Schustrom said Amtrak also brings money to the valley in the form of passersby, in addition to tourists visiting the area as their destination. People traveling elsewhere, perhaps to Seattle from Minneapolis, get off at the Whitefish station and spend money before continuing on their way.

“It’s an important connector between big markets,” Schustrom said.

Folks visiting family and friends in other parts of the state pass through the station as well, Schustrom added.

“It’s an extremely important stop for people going to and from the area, if they’re visiting family in Polson or going other places,” he said.

While the R.L. Banks and Associates’ report detailed the economic benefits of Amtrak’s Empire Builder route in Montana, Metzmaker points out the less tangible advantages.

“There’s something almost romantic about a train,” Metzmaker said. “You step back in time and sit back and relax and enjoy the moment.”