By Tim Leeds
Threats by Amtrak to cut service across northern Montana has Hi-Line residents ready for a fight.
"It's vitally important," Hill County Commissioner Pat Conway said Tuesday. "It's the only commercial mode of transportation across the whole Hi-Line."
The National Railroad Passenger Corp., commonly known as Amtrak, told Congress early in February that unless it receives the $1.2 billion appropriation it requested, it may have to cut its "unprofitable" long-distance passenger services, including the Empire Builder.
The Empire Builder runs twice a day between Chicago and the West Coast, with 13 stops each way in northern Montana, including Havre, Malta and Cut Bank. Amtrak stated that it will give a required 180-day legal notice on March 29 about what long-distance service, if any, will be cut.
"I think they're trying to hold Congress hostage," U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg said Tuesday.
Havre Mayor Bob Rice said that Havre, which lacks bus and taxi service, needs to fight to keep the public railroad.
"They keep this hanging over our head," he said. "This is a vital part of our community. All we have is Amtrak."
Havre's City Council is also on board. The council this week decided to write letters to Rehberg and U.S. Sens. Max Baucus and Conrad Burns.
Rice also will send a letter under his signature. A petition is also circulating, he said.
"I think it's probably something we should do: an endorsement that says we're behind it," Rice said. "It's a necessity. If we lose Amtrak, it would be devastating."
Losing the train service would jeopardize the safety of the rail line, council member Allen Woodwick said.
"Passenger rails call for higher safety standards. If we lose the passenger service and they lessen the standards, it could be a real safety concern," Woodwick said. "I think it's very important for the council and the mayor to support (keeping Amtrak in Havre), but I think everybody should call or e-mail their congressman."
Rehberg and representatives of Baucus and Burns said that because of the importance of the passenger and freight service Amtrak to Montana and especially the Hi-Line, they will fight to keep the service running.
Kevin Johnson, spokesman for Amtrak in Chicago, said whether the Empire Builder continues to run will depend on how much Congress appropriates for Amtrak this year.
"We certainly want to keep the system operating as is," he said. " It's too early to say what would be cut if appropriations are too low."
Rehberg said the corporate attitude of Amtrak might not include keeping trains like the Empire Builder running.
"It's a management issue," he said. "They have to get out of this mindset that they should only serve people east of the Mississippi," especially in major cities.
Jerry Smith of Galata was involved in finding ways to get the Empire Builder back to running seven days a week when Amtrak cut its service to four days a week in 1995.
"There is an attitude in business that nothing exists between the Mississippi River and the West Coast," he said. " (There is) just a mindset that Montana couldn't generate enough business to be worth their time."
Smith said the proof shows otherwise. He helped tie Canadian shippers into Amtrak's freight service, allowing them to pick up shipments to haul back to Canada and to ship freight east and west on the train instead of trucking it the whole distance.
The system proved both viable and profitable, Smith said. While it didn't make the Empire Builder itself profitable, he said, it would have made the route break even on expenses.
He and Baucus met with Amtrak representatives about a year ago, Smith said, and he thought a deal had been negotiated to keep the Shelby freight connection running. But then the deal disappeared, and the shipping service is on hold until Amtrak decides to revive it, he said.
The most obvious effect of losing the Empire Builder would be losing the only east-west public transportation available on the Hi-Line.
"It just astounds me they would even consider this," said Craig Anderson of Havre. " If people want to get anywhere they have to catch that Amtrak. That's why it's so critical."
The train provides more for the Hi-Line than transportation and jobs in the stations.
Anderson's business, Boxcars restaurant, has had a contract with the rail service to provide food for the train for six years. The restaurant supplies sandwiches for the lounge cars on both the eastbound and westbound trains, breakfasts for the westbound sleeper cars, and dinners for four or five months during the summer, Anderson said.
"It's a big chunk of our business," he said. "We probably stand to lose four or five employees if they pull out."
Jerry Bergren, who owns and operates PJ's Restaurant across the street from the train station, said business would definitely drop if Amtrak stopped coming through Havre.
"Just common sense tells you it's going to hurt," he said.
Even when they are just stopping for 20 minutes, Bergren said, many of the passengers and staff of the Empire Builder stop in the downtown shops.
In addition to those who get off the trains for a short break, many people come some 300 miles or more from the south and from Canada to board the train, Anderson said, sometimes staying overnight.
"They spend a lot of money," he said.
Another benefit Amtrak provides is shipping services, which would affect some Havre businesses. A spokeswoman for Northern Montana Hospital said it receives a weekly shipment for the lab. It's not a big shipment, but the hospital doesn't know what could be done if it's lost.
Brenda Friede, one of the owners of Milam Floral, said her business uses Amtrak freight for shipments of large quantities of supplies.
"I don't know what we would do if we lost Amtrak," she said. "That would be kind of tough."
Jennifer Hoffman, manager of Holland and Bonine Funeral Home, said her business doesn't use a lot of Amtrak shipping, but it is convenient to ship remains of people to Havre if they die away from home.
"We don't look forward to (losing Amtrak) by any means," she said. "We just kind of wish they could afford to keep it open."
Amtrak cut its freight services to two Montana stations, East Glacier and Wolf Point, this month. Gary Erford, an assistant general manager for the Empire Builder, said that was part of cuts across the nation in operating expenses.
Amtrak announced it will cut $285 million in expenses as part of its $1.2 billion appropriations request. Erford said the cuts in Montana amounted to five positions, leaving 14 station personnel, including three in Havre, and 40 train operating personnel,
Rehberg said he will try to keep the Empire Builder running through Montana, but the amount Amtrak receives from Congress might not be what it asked for.
"We're not even sure it needs that much," he said.
Other issues, such as how well Amtrak manages the money it does receive, also need to be looked at, Rehberg said.
J.P. Donovan of Burns' staff said Burns will also try to keep Amtrak in Montana.
"Amtrak is too important, whether for passengers or freight," he said. "Senator Burns will fight to make sure they get the funding they need to continue operating."
Bill Lombardi of Baucus' staff said Baucus will also work to keep the passenger and shipping services running.
"He's going to make sure officials back in Washington understand the importance of Amtrak in Montana and the Hi-Line," Lombardi said.
Daily News reporter Ross Markman contributed to this story.