Tim Leeds Havre Daily News firstname.lastname@example.org
Nearly 30 people were waiting in the Havre Amtrak station Friday for the eastbound Empire Builder to roll in about 1:30 p.m., reflecting the statistics: ridership on Amtrak is up this year, with the number of people boarding the Empire Builder up almost 4 percent over last year’s figures. “It’s well above the average for the overnight trains,” said Marc Magliari, Amtrak spokesman out of Chicago. People waiting to board the train Friday said they chose the train for many reasons, including convenience for some, it was the only reasonable alternative they had for their trip. Lorraine Malm and her son, Matthew Malm, had driven to Havre from Medicine Hat, Alberta, to board the train on route to meet family in Grand Forks, N.D. She said that her other options are to board a flight with several stops and plane changes en route to Minot or drive the entire distance. “This is the only way to get there easily,” Malm said. “ This just rolls into Grand Forks, it’s very easy.” She added that she has family in Whitefish and Spokane, and is considering riding the Empire Builder to those destinations as well. Jerry Jones of Janesville, Wis., said he not only rides the train, he thinks the service should be expanded. “I do feel it’s very important,” Jones said. “I think there should be more of it.” This is the third time Jones rode has ridden the train to Havre, where he meets some friends from Oregon and spends time with them in north-central Montana. Jones said the train had more riders this time than his last two trips. “I think the gas prices might be part of that,” he added. Prices in Havre this morning were about $3.12 a gallon for regular unleaded gasoline. Magliari said the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, known as Amtrak, is again facing the budgeting session in the U. S. Congress to see how much money it will have to operate next year. According to data from Amtrak, the passenger railroad system has not received the amount it requested in its budget since 2000 for the 2006 fiscal year, Amtrak requested more than $1.8 billion dollars and the Bush administration requested no funding. Congress appropriated slightly more than $1.3 billion for the passenger rail corporation that year. Montana’s members of Congress said they will fight to make sure Amtrak gets enough funding to keep rolling. “The Empire Builder is critically important for thousands of folks along the Hi-Line, from Wolf Point to Whitefish and every point in between,” said Sen. Jon Tester, a democrat who farms near Big Sandy. “The fact that the president wants to cut funding for Amtrak shows what a real disconnect there is between his administration and rural Montana.” Montana’s senior senator, democrat Max Baucus, made similar comments. “The Empire Builder is the lifeline to folks along the H-Line it’s the engine that drives the economy,” he said. “ Every year we have to fight to ensure Amtrak gets the funding it needs and deserves and I’ll continue to work to secure those vital dollars again this year.” Bridger Pierce, a spokesman for Montana’s sole representative, Republican Denny Rehberg, this morning said Rehberg will again try to make sure Amtrak gets the funding it needs. “We have been pretty successful in getting funding the last few years,” he added. The issue came to a head in 2002 when Amtrak President George Warrington said that unless Amtrak received the full $1.2 billion it requested for its budget, it would start eliminating some long-distance passenger service. He later resigned and was replaced by David Gunn, who said the company would not eliminate part of its service. If it ran out of money, he said, it would shut down entirely. Closure of Amtrak was averted in June of 2002 when the federal government guaranteed loans and appropriated extra money to keep the passenger rail service solvent. Since then, the congressional appropriations have ranged from $1.1 billion to $1.3 billion, less than Amtrak requested but significantly more than the administration’s request in those years. Amtrak’s President Alex Kummant told Congress this month that the passenger rail corporation still needs to improve its infrastructure, specifically for improvements in intercity corridors such as those in the northeast. Magliari said Amtrak is confident it will receive enough funding to continue through the next fiscal year, starting Oct. 1. “There is plenty of optimism that the company will receive adequate funding,” he said. “We can’t do some of the capital work as fast as we would like or some of the expansions but we certainly will be able to operate the Empire Builder.” While a couple of overnight routes have had a greater percentage increase in passengers, the Empire Builder has had a greater increase, through May, than most routes. More than 310,000 people rode the Empire Builder, which runs from Chicago to Seattle and Portland on the West Coast, from October through May. That is an increase of 3.9 percent over last year’s ridership for that period. Magliari said the average increase for passenger trains was 1.7 percent, with the company average at 1.5 percent. Information from the Associated Press was used in this story.