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Amtrak reduction will hurt Montana

| June 25, 2020 1:00 AM

Montanans living along the Hi-Line were delivered a blow this week when Amtrak announced it plans to cut its Empire Builder service to three days a week beginning this fall.

The rail line provides a critical, daily service to the rural communities along the state’s northern border, from Libby to Wolf Point and stops in between like Havre and Glasgow.

Whitefish has long been one of the busiest stops on the Empire Builder, which runs from Chicago to Portland and Seattle. The timing couldn’t be worse for Whitefish’s tourism-dependent economy with the planned reduction in service coming just prior to ski season. The Empire Builder schedule is timed perfectly for skiers arriving from the West because the eastbound train pulls into the station early enough to enable skiers to hit the ski slopes that same day.

“This loss adds to everything else that’s piling on,” Whitefish Chamber President Kevin Gartland said, noting the economic setbacks the hospitality industry is feeling from the virus shutdown.

Amtrak chalked up the drop in service to sharp ridership declines from the COVID-19 pandemic — a reasonable explanation given the pandemic’s affect on all modes of transportation. At a low point Amtrak said ridership was down 95% during the economic shutdown.

Amtrak was allocated about $1 billion in CARES Act funding to weather the downtown, half of which went to the hard hit Northeast Corridor route connecting Washington, D.C., New York City and Boston. The bailout wasn’t enough, however, and last month the railroad company said it needs an additional $1.5 billion in supplemental funding to maintain “minimum service levels.”

But while Amtrak’s long-distance ridership declined the least during the shutdown, it’s those routes serving rural America that will feel the brunt of the service reductions, not the Northeast Corridor.

That’s left some senators representing rural states with a sour taste, including Montana’s Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines who both penned letters to Amtrak CEO William Flynn expressing disappointment in the budget plan.

“Putting the brunt of budget shortfalls on rural America and its workers is unacceptable, no matter the circumstances, but it’s particularly egregious when Amtrak’s long-distance provided double the revenue of state-supported routes or the Northeast Corridor combined in May,” Tester pointed out.

“These actions will eliminate thousands of points of connection and dramatically reduce the utility of Amtrak as a transportation provider, irrevocably hurting hundreds of communities and small towns already devastated by the COVID19 pandemic,” Daines wrote in his letter.

Both senators urged details from Amtrak about the “conditions and timelines” of a return to daily service on all long-distance routes.

Montana depends on Amtrak service, in more ways than one, and we’re glad to see both of Montana’s senators pushing back on this unfortunate reduction in service that hits close to home.