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Amtrak Cuts Daily Service To Empire Builder, Requests More Relief Funds

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Paul Tuss, the executive director of Bear Paw Development Corporation in Havre, spoke during a U.S. Senate committee hearing Oct. 21, 2020, about Amtrak's recent service reduction.

Starting this week, Amtrak reduced daily passenger rail service along Montana’s Hi-Line to three days a week, pointing to drastic drops in ridership and revenue during the COVID-19 pandemic. Passenger rail advocates say this change will further diminish limited transportation options in frontier communities and justify more permanent cuts to service.

The Empire Builder runs from Chicago to Seattle or Portland, with stops in 12 Montana communities. Last year, over 120,000 passengers boarded or disembarked in the state.

Paul Tuss is the executive director of Bear Paw Development Corporation, a federally recognized economic development district in northern Montana. During a U.S. Senate committee hearing Wednesday, he said Amtrak’s Empire Builder brings in tourists, which contributes to the regional and state economies, and that it helps Montanans access advanced medical care, commute to work and connect with family and friends.

“Once that service becomes less reliable, it’s a self fulfilling prophecy that they’re not going to use it. If they can’t go see their grandkids or their great grandkids or if they can’t get to Seattle for a doctor’s appointment, they’ll find some other way to get there, and unfortunately, the numbers for Amtrak will slide further,” Tuss said.

Montana Democratic Senator Jon Tester sits on the Commerce, Science, & Transportation Senate Committee, which held the hearing.

“I pushed for this hearing because the Senate and the Trump Administration need to hear first hand accounts of just how tone deaf recent Amtrak policies are when it comes to their effect on rural communities,” Tester said.

Tester said the Trump administration has consistently attempted to gut Amtrak in annual budget proposals and that Republican senators have refused to hold the President accountable or support legislation that would increase funding for Amtrak.

Amtrak President and CEO William Flynn said the government subsidized rail service has almost run out of the $1 billion allocated in the CARES Act. Amtrak expects a nearly $250 million cash burn each month without more financial support.

“Our ridership levels now are not even covering what we call above the rail costs, which are fuel, the cost of attendants, stations, etc,” Flynn said.

Flynn said over 500 Amtrak employees have taken a voluntary separation plan, another 100 management employees were laid off over the last several months and Amtrak is furloughing around 2,000 employees. Another 2,400 people could be furloughed later.

Amtrak is asking for nearly $5 billion to $10 billion to restore service and recall workers for Financial Year 2021.

Three weeks ago, the U.S. House passed a revised HEROES Act that included $2.4 billion for Amtrak. The Republican controlled Senate has not voted on the legislation yet.