Stuck Between Stations

By Beacon Staff

The windows of the Izaak Walton Inn in Essex may still rattle with the passing of each train, but the number of people stopping at the small mountain hamlet is smaller this summer, according to General Manager David Gatton.

“We’re not seeing the traffic we normally see this time of year,” Gatton said.

Flooding around Minot, N.D. has shut down BNSF Railway’s line through North Dakota, used daily by Amtrak’s Empire Builder between Chicago and Seattle/Portland. In early June passenger service was temporally discontinued while flood-damaged track in eastern Montana and North Dakota was repaired. And historic flooding in Minot has since kept the line closed. Now Amtrak service is only running between Chicago and St. Paul, Minn. on the east end and Seattle/Portland and Havre on the west end.

Flooding in North Dakota has cut off service on Amtrak’s Empire Builder between Havre and St. Paul, Minn. and that’s starting to affect area businesses who rely on out of state visitors. The Empire Builder’s route takes it along the southern boundary of Glacier National Park, seen here near West Glacier on June 26. – Justin Franz/Flathead Beacon

The loss of passengers from Chicago and points east has hurt businesses around Glacier National Park that rely heavily on the influx of summer visitors to the area.

Gatton said one-third of the guests at the Izaak Walton Inn use the passenger train to get to Essex, located near the heart of the park. Since train service was shortened to Havre a few weeks ago, Gatton said that the inn has seen about a 30 percent drop in guests.

“We’re getting a lot of cancellations and change of dates,” he added.

Gatton said business from tour buses has helped the historic inn get by, but it is still two weeks behind with normal guest counts. In past years the inn would fill up by mid-June, but it wasn’t until last week that they were able to hang the no vacancy sign.

The story is the same down the road in West Glacier at the Belton Chalet, according to general manager Christie Roberts, who said they get at least one call a day from a potential customer canceling or changing their vacation plans.

“We’re just rolling with the punches,” she said, adding that delayed opening of the Going-to-the-Sun Road hasn’t helped matters.

But Whitefish may be the most affected stop on the line. According to Amtrak, 66,813 passengers used the station in Whitefish last year, an average of 180 people a day, making it the busiest stop in Montana.

Rhonda Fitzgerald at the Garden Wall Inn in downtown Whitefish has noticed the drop in passengers.

“It’s creating quite a bit of disruption for visitors and businesses,” she said. “When you lose business in this important part of the season that’s significant.”

Diane Medler, director of the Kalispell Convention and Visitors Bureau, echoed that sentiment. She said the impacts of the closure were not just being felt by towns along the Amtrak route, but throughout the entire Flathead Valley. Medler said that although the final numbers had yet to be gathered, room occupancies were down for the second half of June in the Kalispell area.

When the flood damage is repaired and when the train will once again run its entire route is unknown at this time, according to Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari.

“It’s up to Mother Nature really,” he said. “The Empire Builder is our most popular long-distance train and we hope that passengers will be patient and reschedule their trip for when the line reopens.”

The task of repairing the tracks will be up to owner BNSF Railway, according to spokesman Gus Melonas. He said that the water has begun to recede and that freight service could resume sometime in early July. Meanwhile, BNSF freight trains have been taking different routes around the flooding, including detours through Missoula and Great Falls.

“Fortunately we have alternative routes where we can continue service,” he said.

The day the tracks are restored and service continues along the entire Empire Builder route will be a welcome one for Gatton at the Izaak Walton.

“I’m still really hopeful for a good season,” he said. “I mean we still have bookings, it’s just later in the summer.”

A young passenger briefly hangs out the door of Amtrak’s Empire Builder after loading at the Whitefish Depot. Flooding around Minot, N.D. has shutdown BNSF Railway’s line through North Dakota, used daily by Amtrak.

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