When Greyhound eliminated service at several rural Montana stops last August, the withdrawal of the bus line left many nondrivers in rural Montana without an inexpensive way to get from point A to point B. It also severed a link to the rest of the world for relatively isolated areas such as Big Timber, Glendive and Laurel, along with 10 other Montana towns that waved goodbye to the buses for good as summer drew to a close. Now, another moderately priced transportation option (at least compared to the cost of airfare) may be in trouble: the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, more commonly known as Amtrak.
Such a predicament might seem strange given that in 2003 and 2004 the national train system experienced record-high use with approximately 24 million and 25 million riders respectively. Ridership on Amtrak’s Empire Builder, which runs from Chicago through Whitefish and Libby before reaching Portland and Seattle and is currently celebrating its 75th anniversary, experienced an increase in ridership of 5.2 percent in fiscal year 2004, with 437,191 riders. In addition, Amtrak cut operating expenses by $11 million from 2002 to 2003. Nonetheless, the railroad lost money in 2003—$644 million to be exact—and even the Empire Builder, which Amtrak spokesman Cliff Black says is his outfit’s most popular long-distance train, suffered an overall operating cash loss. Through the first three quarters of 2004, Amtrak has suffered a cash loss of $495 million.
Black says such losses are normal, noting that since its inception in 1971 Amtrak has never made money, nor has any other U.S. passenger rail system since vast federal highway projects in the 1930s opened the road to long-distance driving.
“We’ve been trying to make the point for a long time that no, we’re not making money, and we never will, just like the [federally subsidized] highways. Amtrak’s no different,” Black says.
Dealing with record budget deficits leaving little money to spare on U.S. infrastructure in the wake of Iraq appropriations and tax cuts, however, the Bush administration’s Department of Transportation (DOT) seems to view Amtrak in a different light. Bush had proposed a 2005 fiscal year budget of $900 million, a $300 million cut, even though DOT warns that without investment in capital improvement projects such as repairing tracks and old bridges, “a major point of failure will occur” (Amtrak was eventually granted a $1.2 billion appropriation for 2005, the same amount it was given for 2004). On Nov. 18, DOT Inspector General Kenneth Mead presented an assessment report on Amtrak’s 2003-2004 financial performance and requirements.
“The bottom line is that the existing system is not sustainable at current funding levels,” Mead’s report reads, later stating that “The Administration is willing to provide additional Federal funds if Amtrak restructures operations to focus on developing short-distance corridors (routes with end-to-end distances of less than 500 miles), targeting improvements to the services that hold the greatest potential for future passenger growth.”
In other words, the Bush administration is encouraging Amtrak to keep the profitable commuter routes (mostly found on the two coasts) and ditch the money-losers—those being the long-distance, typically more rural routes.
Yet such routes are often crucial to rural areas, as in Montana, where the Empire Builder lures tourists with a route through the majesty of Glacier National Park in the summer and a convenient debarking spot not far from Whitefish’s Big Mountain ski resort in the winter. A report conducted for the Montana Department of Transportation last year concluded that the Empire Builder brings more than $5 million in tourist dollars into Montana annually, and that “Amtrak’s Empire Builder is an essential transportation service for which there is, by and large in most of the Montana communities served, no reasonable alternative.”
But by stressing its desire for Amtrak to operate more like a for-profit private company, the administration has placed more value on day-to-day commuters on the Long Island Railroad than on the rural rider who makes the occasional long trip from Whitefish to North Dakota on the Empire Builder, as Whitefish resident Jeneane Crow says she did for years to visit family.
“This has been awful handy,” Crow says, before boarding the train early in the morning on Thursday, Dec. 9. “Especially with gas the way it is. I love taking the train.”
So do a lot of other people, says Ross Capon, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit National Association of Railroad Passengers.
“A lot of people are medically unable to fly or are terrified of flying,” Capon says. “There’s also a quality of life issue. The fact that you can see and enjoy our nation’s beauty from a train is significant, though I realize that would not cut any water with the Bush administration.”
Black says the rail service doesn’t plan to take the Bush administration’s cue and drop long-distance routes stretching through the country’s “red states.” Instead, he says, Amtrak will continue to put off much-needed repairs and capital improvements—exactly what DOT urged Amtrak not to do in its financial report.
Since Amtrak refuses to put itself under the knife, what cuts do come will paint the Bush administration and anti-train Republicans including Arizona Sen. John McCain as the bad guys to the Jeneane Crows of the country. That won’t happen, however, if Montana Senators Max Baucus and Conrad Burns can capture the ears of their colleagues. As Capon points out, both Montana senators have been “very supportive” of Amtrak, in part because, he says, “The Empire Builder is the poster child for a part of the country that doesn’t have as many transportation options.”
“There are those who feel it’s not necessary to have intercity passenger rail in certain parts of the country,” Black says, careful not to name names. “A lot of people in the big cities might discount the value of those long-distance trains, but [they] are extremely important to the communities that they serve.”