By Tim Leeds
Network television will again focus on Amtrak in Montana this time coming to Havre as the passenger rail service faces changes and new challenges.
A news team from NBC's "Today" show is scheduled to be in Havre for several days next week, working on a story about how people depend on Amtrak's Empire Builder, which runs from Chicago to the West Coast.
"I think it's going to be wonderful," said Debbie Vandeberg, executive director of the Havre Area Chamber of Commerce. "I think getting the story out nationally gets the message to the East Coast mindset that long-distance trains are needed in Montana and states like it."
Vandeberg, Havre Mayor Bob Rice and Montana's Save Amtrak organizer, Jerry Smith of Galata, have been working with Patrice Fletcher of "Today" to plan interviews.
Two weeks ago, a CBS news crew came to the Hi-Line for a story about the Empire Builder. The crew had planned to come to Havre but had to cancel because of a snowstorm.
Amtrak senior officials have said that the Empire Builder and other long-distance trains could be sacrificed if Congress doesn't meet Amtrak's appropriations request.
New problems for the nation's only passenger rail surfaced this week. New Amtrak president David Gunn sent a letter to Amtrak employees Wednesday telling them the company is facing a $200 million shortfall. If Amtrak doesn't receive a loan in the next three weeks, it will have to shut down all operations, he said.
Kajal Jhaveri, an Amtrak spokeswoman, said today the corporation is focusing on trying to secure the loan from a consortium of banks to carry its operations through the 2002 fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.
"We are putting all of our efforts into securing the loan," she said.
Gunn presented ideas about reorganizing the railroad to its governing board in a private meeting Thursday. His ideas include reducing the company's number of vice presidents from 84 to about 20 in an effort to refocus the corporation's attention on its role as a railroad.
Gunn also wants to centralize the corporation's regional operating divisions in Washington, D.C. The division offices in Chicago, Philadelphia and Oakland, Calif., would remain open, but only to handle local operations.
Amtrak can't comment about particulars of Gunn's proposals, Jhaveri said, since they are still in the planning stages and haven't been voted on by the board.
Smith said he is concerned about the announced $200 million shortfall, but that it's not really a new problem.
"Amtrak has been in this situation before," he said. "The problem Amtrak is facing is that they're mortgaged to the hilt."
Rice said he is not too concerned about the problem, although there are still a lot of hurdles to overcome.
"I think clear minds will prevail," he said. "I'm not going to panic yet."
Rice supports the plan to reorganize Amtrak.
"They should have done it a long time ago," he said.
Smith agrees with most of the planned changes.
"A lot of it was long overdue," he said. "(Gunn has) a large job ahead of him and he wants this thing to move."
But Smith is leery of losing the regional management and the people who have made the Empire Builder one of the less costly trains Amtrak has. The Empire Builder requires about $1.65 in subsidies for every dollar in profit, Smith said, compared to a 3-to-1 ratio for trains on the West Coast.
"The Beltway does not have a firm grasp of the needs of the West," he said. "To lose that identity with people that know us and we know them I don't think that's so good."
Amtrak, a private corporation that receives funding from the U.S. government, has only received about 60 percent of its budget requests for the last five years. This year, President Bush's budget request contained about half of the $1.2 billion Amtrak says it must have to keep all operations running.
Amtrak announced in February that unless it received the full amount it requested, some or all long-distance trains might have to be cut.
The NBC team is planning to focus on the need for the Empire Builder, outside of providing basic public transportation, Smith said.
He also worked with the "CBS Evening News" team with reporter Bob McNamara when it came to Montana two weeks ago to cover the possible loss of the Empire Builder.
That story, which aired on Eye On America last Friday, was well done, Smith said, and wasn't what McNamara had initially expected.
"I think Bob came out here with preconceived notions and changed them. I think the story reflected the need for the Empire Builder much more than was intended."
Vandeberg said she is excited that NBC plans to focus on the need for the train. She said she and Rice have been trying to direct NBC toward people who use the train for medical service, as well as businesses involved with Amtrak and people who depend on it for transportation.
Rice said the story might help people see that keeping the Empire Builder running is a necessity.
"People think we're out here in the boondocks, and out of sight, out of mind," he said.
Something has to be done to show people in the East, who think a 100-mile drive is a two- or three-day trip, that the situation in the West is different, Vandeberg said.
"To say, Cut Amtrak, it's no big deal' it's a lifeline they don't comprehend," she said.
A spokeswoman for "Today" said reporter Jim Avila is working on the story for the show.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this story.