As Amtrak Proposes Changes to Long-Distance Trains, Passenger Rail Advocates Sound the Alarm

Amtrak officials say Empire Builder service will not change, but some worry about health of national network

By Justin Franz
A passenger grabs onto a hand rail on an Amtrak train car in Whitefish. Beacon File Photo

Passenger rail advocates are raising concerns about changes to Amtrak’s long-distance trains that they believe could negatively impact the railroad’s national network, including the Empire Builder.

Since spring, Amtrak has made a number of cuts to save money. Out east, it replaced traditional dining-car service on two long-distance trains with pre-prepared boxed meals. It eliminated local employees at more than a dozen stations across the country, including in Havre and Shelby, meaning passengers boarding at those stops could not buy tickets in person or get any help with luggage. It also eliminated or drastically changed a number of long-standing discounts, including those enjoyed by students, veterans, seniors and AAA members. And it has proposed substituting a large section of the Southwest Chief route (a daily passenger train from Chicago to Los Angeles) with a bus through Colorado and New Mexico.

Amtrak officials have said the changes are meant to make the railroad — a quasi-public corporation established in 1971 to operate inter-city passenger trains that were no longer profitable — more fiscally efficient. But people like Barry Green, a railroader in Glendive and a Rail Passengers Association council member representing Montana, worry that the cuts are part of an attempt to eventually eliminate or dramatically reduce long-distance train services and instead focus on routes in more populated areas.

“Amtrak seems to be doing more to run off passengers than to gain passengers on its long-distance trains,” Green said. “It seems like they’re doing nothing to promote these train services.”

Rumors have also persisted that changes could be coming to the Empire Builder. In May, during a U.S. Senate hearing, Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, asked Amtrak Executive Vice President Stephen Gardner to address a rumor that Empire Builder service could be reduced to three times a week. Gardner said there were no such plans at this time.

George Chilson, a Rail Passengers Association board member and past chairman, said he worries that cuts to any long-distance service would be the “first domino to fall” in an effort to eliminate service. Green and Chilson said if service were reduced or eliminated on one route, it would mean fewer connections or options for passengers and have a negative impact on the overall system.

“We need to have an interconnected passenger rail network that serves the entire nation,” Chilson said.

Amtrak currently serves 500 destinations in 46 states and three Canadian provinces.

While none of the changes to Amtrak’s long-distance services have directly impacted the Empire Builder’s service in Northwest Montana — the train makes daily stops in Libby, Whitefish, West Glacier, Essex and East Glacier Park/Browning — people like Dylan Boyle, executive director of the Whitefish Convention and Visitors Bureau, are keeping a close eye on it.

“The Empire Builder is very important to Whitefish,” he said. “It’s iconic.”

All three members of Montana’s delegation in Washington D.C. have voiced support for the Empire Builder and Amtrak as a whole. Daines, Sen. Jon Tester and Rep. Greg Gianforte have also pressured Amtrak to rehire station agents in Havre and Shelby. Whitefish is now the only station in Montana with a full-time, year-round station agent.

“Eliminating funding for long-distance Amtrak service will hurt rural communities across the country and especially in Montana,” Tester said.

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