While most in the area have heard that the Amtrak Ticket Station in Shelby is closing, there are many variations of what this means for riders and employees.
Yes, the ticket station is closing. June 2 will be the last day people will be able to buy tickets at the station, according to Marc Magliari, Public Relations Manager (Spokesman) of Amtrak Government Affairs & Corporate Communications. But that does not mean the depot will be closed to passengers as they wait for the train, nor does it mean there is absolutely no way to purchase a train ticket person-to-person in Shelby.
“People can still pay the Amtrak conductor cash for a ticket as they board. “But they will be paying highest fare for that trip,” warned Magliari. “Purchasing over the phone or online in advance, with your debit or credit card gets you the lowest rate.”
Since not everyone has a credit or debit card to utilize these services, Magliari recommends purchasing a prepaid debit card, which are available almost everywhere, from gas stations to grocery stores.
The station will remain a crew base and Amtrak stop. It currently employs three customer service reps, who, Magliari said, do have union rights and could possibly go to another station. While no customer service reps will be available after June 2, the waiting room and the bathrooms will remain open and there will be a caretaker for the facility.
“We want people to have a warm, clean station,” acknowledged Magliari. “Shelby remains an important place for us. We will still house our crew in Shelby for the crew base and provide a caretaker for the station. This was simply a business decision.”
A business decision the passengers of Amtrak ultimately helped make. According to the website media.amtrak.com, fewer than one in 10 are buying their tickets at the ticket window. More than three quarters of Amtrak passengers purchase online via the website or mobile apps.
“Customers have voted with their keyboards to buy another way,” said Magliari.
No customer service also means no baggage check. Amtrak is looking into solutions to address this concern, including the possibility of having a train-side baggage check. A decision will be made soon, as Shelby is not the only station losing its ticket window and customer service reps.
Havre’s station is in the same predicament, with two customer service reps no longer being there after June 1, along other stations along the Empire Builder’s route.
Shelby and Havre, which are two stations out of 500 Amtrak Stations, are not the only stations seeing cutbacks under new Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson, who took over in 2017.
Anderson, the former CEO of Delta Airlines, is raising concern with the Rail Passengers Association (RPA) and the Association of Oregon Rail and Transit Advocates (AORTA).
“It is our (members of AORTA, and the national passenger train advocacy group, RPA-Rail Passengers Association) opinion that without a unified effort to change the current mindset about Amtrak long distance trains within Amtrak, the Empire Builder will be discontinued within a year,” said Mark Meyers of Oregon, Rep At-Large, RPA, and a Cut Bank High School graduate, in an email sent to residents along the Empire route. “In addition, other factors are in play that, if not addressed, will hasten the demise of the service.”
Meyer advised Anderson has no railroad operating experience, nor historical or institutional railroad knowledge. Since Anderson has become CEO, Amtrak has canceled three trips of the Empire Builder for the entire run from Chicago to Seattle/Portland in March and April of this year.
The two trips in April were due to a snowstorm in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, which dropped 12 inches of snow, which is fairly common along the route.
“In the past during severe weather, Amtrak has at least offered service to the areas not affected by the storm,” said Meyer. “One strength of passenger trains over other modes of transport is their reputation as an ‘all-weather’ way to travel. This new policy of proactively canceling trains for a seasonal event, known as winter, is new under the Anderson administration at Amtrak.
“Amtrak management in general is currently lacking sufficient historical and institutional knowledge of railroad operations,” said Meyer. “One of those who left the company in 2017 was the Superintendent in Seattle, who oversees the Empire Builder route in Montana. Unless this has changed very recently, Amtrak hasn’t been able to replace this individual with an appropriately qualified person because Amtrak is chronically underfunded. Amtrak cannot offer a wage sufficiently competitive in the Seattle area, where the cost of living is very high.”
Another Amtrak service being eliminated is most private car movements, passenger cars owned by individuals, something of concern not necessarily for Shelby, but for Montana. One of the prime destinations for these cars is Whitefish, due to its proximity to Glacier National Park. Amtrak will subsequently lose the value of tourist dollars associated with this movement.
“The Empire Builder continues to be a lifeline for online communities, especially in Montana and North Dakota, where everything from recurring threats of discontinuing Essential Air Service funding in places like Devils Lake and Wolf Point, to shuttering department stores like Herberger’s in places like Havre, to closing of Job Service offices in Glasgow and Shelby, threaten to erode the everyday quality of life,” said Meyer. “The loss of Amtrak service would be a substantial blow to each community served.”
Those in the community who do not utilize Amtrak on a regular basis, or at all, might feel this won’t affect them. They would be wrong.
“It’s a good idea to remind people that should the Empire Builder go away, that will be one less carrot on a stick that places in Montana and North Dakota can dangle in front of prospective businesses or tourists considering a business presence in the area,” said Meyer. “Overall, the economic benefit to the online communities served by the Empire Builder easily exceeds the annual investment by the federal government.”
Meyer encourages everyone to contact their elected representatives in Washington, D.C., and push for not only transparency from Amtrak, but also increased funding for Amtrak long-distance service.
“The fact that train travel is the most comfortable way to travel, especially during inclement weather, is one of many aspects of the advantages of having Amtrak in your community,” he concluded. “As has been shown in the past, when service is upgraded, usage increases, and that helps the bottom line. And let’s not give up on this valuable resource while we, as a country, continue to subsidize all other forms of public transport.”