Railing on about Amtrak 

There’s something beautiful and surprising about the morning Amtrak arrival in Whitefish. The Empire Builder pulls in, heading east, at 7:26 a.m. Then suddenly, people are walking down Central Avenue. Some carry backpacks, headed for the hostel in the Whitefish “Railway District.” Others carry bags under their eyes as they file toward Java Joe’s coffee stand. The drive-up hut changed its hours so it could take advantage of train passenger traffic, which remains steady and consistently in need of caffeine.

How much do these passengers spend at Java Joe’s or the hostel or the Buffalo Café, where many head in search of a prairie fire scramble? Who knows. Even if the positive economic benefits of Amtrak’s service to Whitefish could be quantified down to the last biscotti, the numbers would get lost in the cross-traffic of political accounting.

Everyone knows that Amtrak is losing money. The rail company’s operating loss in 2001 was $1.1 billion. In the first half of the current fiscal year, Amtrak saw its ridership drop by 100,000.

But lately business has picked up. In May, passenger numbers on the Empire Builder—which runs from Chicago to Portland and Seattle—increased by 27.9 percent.

“We just had the biggest May we’ve ever had,” says Amtrak spokesman Cliff Black. “That’s significant, and it’s not even ski season.”

During the ski season, as many as 200 passengers debark in Whitefish each day, and last year, a total of 47,874 train riders passed through the town’s elegantly restored depot.

The price of a round-trip ticket from Seattle varies from around $100 to as much as $300. For those who want to spend more, Amtrak still offers travel suites complete with private lavatories, showers and easy chairs that look out picture windows. Spokesman Black describes these sleeper rooms as “capacious.”

“Let’s clarify terms,” Black continues, when asked about rumors that the Bush administration is preparing to privatize Amtrak. “If by privatization you mean pure, private enterprise, it means no passenger trains at all,” says Black, explaining that just like the U.S. highway system, public airports and the airlines themselves, passenger train travel already relies on subsidies from Congress.

Last week, the transportation committee of the U.S. Senate held a hearing on “funding mechanisms” for Amtrak. Black says the rail service is anticipating a soon-to-be released plan from the Bush administration that will likely suggest some form of privatization.

“But we haven’t seen that plan,” says Black, who acts mildly defensive when asked about Amtrak’s up and down ridership numbers.

“You know who’s down,” says Black. “Check the airlines to see who’s down…”

Catching himself in a moment of frustration, Black slows down, then apologizes, “I’m sorry, I’m being flip about it.”

That’s OK. Fans of the train in Whitefish feel your pain.

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