Senators Push Transportation Department, Amtrak for Answers on Future of Empire Builder

Daines calls any proposal to alter long-distance service “troubling,” Tester writes letter to Amtrak president seeking answers

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

Montana’s two U.S. senators are pushing Amtrak officials for answers about the future of long-distance passenger trains, including the Empire Builder.

Earlier this year, the Trump administration proposed drastically slashing Amtrak’s budget and having states pay more for passenger rail service. Amtrak officials have also been “reassessing” its long-distance routes to see if it can reduce the amount of federal money it needs to subsidize the services. Few details have been provided about what, if any, changes might be made or when those changes would be implemented.

“Amtrak is trying to reassess how best to address the needs of rural communities and maintain mobility but also think of ways to reduce (federal) subsidies,” said U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao during a hearing last month in response to a question from Montana Sen. Steve Daines.

Some federal officials have suggested replacing some long-distance trains with buses. Daines called the proposals “troubling.”

This week, Montana Sen. Jon Tester co-authored a letter with 10 other senators from both parties demanding answers from Amtrak President Richard Anderson.

“Congress purposely created a national network of long-distance and state supported train service throughout the nation, regardless of how rural it may be,” Tester wrote.  “Amtrak is a web of essential connections that bind our country together and link rural communities with major markets and economic opportunities.”

In the letter – co-authored by the likes of Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, a Republican, and West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat – the senators ask a number of questions of Anderson, including what routes could be altered and how the passenger railroad is calculating revenue on the long-distance trains. The senators asked Anderson to respond before April 29.

Barry Green, Montana’s representative for the advocacy group Rail Passengers Association, said he is pleased with the support long-distance trains are receiving from both sides of the aisle in Congress. However, he’s worried about the future of rail service in places like Montana, especially if the states have to pay for long-distance trains like the Empire Builder.

“There is no way the states could afford the long-distance trains,” he said.

While there are a number of state-sponsored Amtrak routes, those lines tend to be shorter and in more populated areas.

Green said there is still a need for passenger trains, especially in rural communities along the Hi-Line.

“Long-distance trains are still necessary,” he said.

Amtrak’s Empire Builder runs daily between Chicago and Portland/Seattle. The train stops in Libby, Whitefish, West Glacier, Essex, and Browning.