Amtrak Struggles Continue in Montana

Whitefish station sees a 27 percent drop in riders as delays persist

By Justin Franz

Eight months after Amtrak adjusted the Empire Builder’s schedule through Northwest Montana to curb delays, the long-distance passenger train is still struggling to stay on time. However, railroad officials note there have been some minor improvements on the train that connects Chicago with Seattle and Portland.

Passenger rail advocates have blamed the delays on an increase in freight rail traffic across the northern part of the country, particularly oil trains coming out of North Dakota. However, freight and passenger congestion in Chicago – the crossroads of North America’s rail lines – is another contributing factor.

In October, the westbound Empire Builder, No. 7, was on time just 6.5 percent of the time. The eastbound train, No. 8, was on time 19.4 percent – a big improvement when compared to June of this year when it had a zero percent on time rate. Amtrak spokesperson Marc Magliari also said the length of the delays hasdropped slightly, especially when compared to last winter when delays of 12 hours were not uncommon. On the night of Dec. 4, the westbound Empire Builder arrived 1 hour and 57 minutes late. The following morning, the eastbound train arrived 2 hours and 55 minutes late.

“The magnitude of the delays has been reduced, but we’re still not comfortable going back to the old schedule yet,” Magliari said.

The old schedule had the eastbound train coming through Whitefish at 7:26 a.m. and the westbound train at 8:56 p.m. On April 15, trains began leaving Seattle and Portland three hours earlier at 1:40 p.m, putting the eastbound train through Libby at 2:26 a.m., Whitefish at 4:26 a.m., West Glacier at 5:16 a.m., Essex at 5:55 a.m. and Browning at 7:10 a.m. Railroad officials hoped the additional time would mean the train would arrive at its destinations closer to its advertised schedule.

However, the change has been frustrating to local businesses, according to Dylan Boyle, executive director of the Whitefish Visitors and Convention Bureau. Boyle said the early morning arrival is unwelcoming and “not the experience we want for our visitors.” Boyle did note that Amtrak has agreed to keep the depot open later in the morning so passengers with no place to go won’t end up on a street corner. But Boyle said word has spread about the consistent delays and inconvenient schedule and fewer people are riding to Whitefish. According to data from the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research at the University of Montana, 15,143 fewer passengers have taken the train to Whitefish in 2014 versus 2013; a 27 percent decrease from last year.

“We’re still the most popular station stop in Montana but our numbers are decreasing,” Boyle said.

Magliari said Amtrak understands the concerns of area businesses and added that the railroad planned on reevaluating the schedule after the holidays. He said service would improve as BNSF Railway, which owns the tracks Amtrak runs on, continues to expand capacity through Montana and North Dakota. BNSF recently announced that it plans on spending $6 billion on capital improvements in 2015.

“The work they’re doing will improve our operations on their network,” Magliari said.