Thanks to the Cut Bank Pioneer Press and Shelby Promoter for their coverage of “all things Amtrak” over the past three years, including the destaffing of the Shelby station and the pending threat to reduce service from daily to three days per week beginning Oct. 1.
Interestingly, as of Aug. 7, the Amtrak website still allows passengers to book travel on the Empire Builder any day of the week after Oct. 1. Since it is unlikely that Amtrak will actually save money by reducing service due to the continuation of its fixed costs to operate the services, many have speculated that the cutback may not actually occur. We’ll see by October, for sure.
Until then, “reminding” your Senators and Congressman of the need for passenger train service along the Hi-Line is encouraged, as such shenanigans could simply “fall through the crack” in deference to so many “extracurricular” activities we all will be exposed to during this election year.
Meanwhile, 12 counties (so far) have signed on to a “rail authority” which is a coalition supporting the return of rail passenger service to Southern Montana, which was discontinued in 1979. Theirs is an uphill battle for sure since Amtrak obviously has no money (nor desire) for new long-distance services or the equipment to operate them.
Also, there are no station facilities and insufficient track infrastructure (which would be requested by the operating railroads) to revive such a service. Still, everything must have a starting point, and it’s good to see that after decades with no train, there is still interest – something that can only help the perception of rail passenger service everywhere.
Still, some in Northern Montana have expressed concern that the effort to revive service in Southern Montana could result in the loss of the Empire Builder. While the importance of the Empire Builder – the only public transportation to some of the communities it serves in Montana – cannot be overstated, I take the word of major players in the Southern Montana coalition that their goal is to add – no redistribute – service in Montana.
I believe, however, that there is benefit from counties in Northern Montana joining the Southern Montana rail authority (and in doing so, make it a “state-wide” entity). Not only would this allow Hi-Line communities input and exposure to the goals and progress of said coalition, but it would be an opportunity to improve existing service along the Empire Builder route.
For example, state-sponsored bus service connecting with Amtrak trains at Havre to Butte via Big Sandy, Fort Benton, Great Falls, Cascade, Helena, and Boulder would not only boost Amtrak ridership, but would a link between Northern and Southern Montana where now none exists.
Similar service could be launched from Williston, Shelby, and Whitefish to allow Amtrak passengers to travel to Sidney, Glendive, Great Falls, Kalispell, and Missoula. Northern Montana counties could also lobby for improvements at existing Amtrak stations, including pavement and lighting in parking areas, and improved amenities in station waiting rooms. And on a much broader scale, such participation by counties with already existing passenger service would show their appreciation and could be an ongoing catalyst to advocate for increased federal funding for improving service, such as replacing the current equipment, which is nearly 40 years old.
I urge those on the Hi-Line to continue to voice their support for the Empire Builder and to urge their county commissions to join the Montana Rail Authority as one way to achieve that goal.
(Editor’s Note: Mark Meyer is a former Cut Bank and Havre resident who now lives in Portland, Ore. He serves as National Association of Rail Passengers Board, Empire Builder Advocates and Association of Oregon Rail and Train Advocates.)