A month ago, Amtrak was in dire straits, begging for a bailout to keep its trains running. Yet last week, Congress approved $205 million for Amtrak with no strings attached, on top of a prior loan of $100 million from the U.S. Department of Transportation.
The quick reversal of fortune means national rail service is ensured through the end of the year. It also offers new hope for more rail service in Montana when coupled with favorable reviews of the National Rail Defense Act, which would dedicate $1.5 billion to develop new routes.
A proposed passenger line from Seattle to Denver through Missoula is currently Amtrak’s third priority for new long-distance routes, says James Green, president of the Montana/Wyoming Association of Railroad Passengers.
The enduring complaint against Amtrak is that it doesn’t make enough money to sustain itself. In February, Amtrak warned of an impending financial crisis, and in June Amtrak threatened to stop the trains. The Bush administration and Congress agreed to the bailout, but criticism of the debt-ridden agency intensified, as did renewed calls for self-sufficiency.
Such complaints could be leveled at the only daily passenger train through Montana, the Empire Builder, which runs from Chicago to Seattle and Portland. When asked if this northern route from the Great Plains through the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Coast pays its own way, Amtrak spokesman Howard Riefs responds without hesitation: “None of our long-distance routes are profitable.”
Profitability is a touchstone in the debate over railroads. Critics point at the lack of profit in Amtrak’s 31-year history. Advocates point at the lack of profit in the infrastructure of two other major modes of transportation: automobiles and airplanes.
“There isn’t a railroad in the world that makes a profit,” said Green. “Those who doubt need to understand that it’s a public service, like airways and highways.”
For example, air traffic controllers are federal employees while train dispatchers are railroad employees. Highways are maintained with state and federal funds, while train tracks are maintained by the railroads themselves.
Even if railroads fail to generate profits, they do perform an important function in local economies. In Montana last year 122,203 people boarded or disembarked the Empire Builder, about 51,533 of them in Whitefish.
While the Whitefish Chamber of Commerce does not keep numbers about the financial impact of tourists riding Amtrak, Chamber Manager Chris Carter suggests that their importance can be estimated by their travel habits. Since passengers typically board the train early in the morning or late at night, they usually spend at least one night in a hotel and eat at local restaurants.