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Our View: People need to stop the nickel-and-diming to death of Amtrak


Last updated 6/11/2018 at 11:07am

The National Rail Passenger Corp. — aka Amtrak — seems to be trying to drive passengers away, and people across the nation need to let their voices be heard.

Thursday, a couple went to the Havre Amtrak station — ticket agentless since June 1 due to the wisdom of the corporation — to put their grandson on the train to go to Glasgow.

They found out that not only was no one there to sell them a ticket, but also their grandchild couldn’t get on the train any longer unless an adult rode with him, since no ticket agents were there.

They ended up standing under a tree in the pouring rain trying to buy three tickets — since now they unexpectedly had to ride to Glasgow with their grandchild — on their telephone.

The family might want to use Amtrak in the future, but they might just decide it isn’t worth the effort.

Amtrak has been taking multiple actions in the last few years across the nation that, even if they aren’t intended to reduce ridership, are likely to have exactly that effect.

One of the most recent actions is the removal of the ticket agents in Havre and Shelby — two of 18 Amtrak stations in the nation set to go agentless this year. Amtrak said this is because more and more people are using the internet and telephone services to buy tickets.

The information originally cited — only 7 percent of tickets are purchased through ticket agents — is not true here. Amtrak itself said later that Havre saw 30 percent of tickets purchased in the station, not 7 percent, and an agent said 70 percent in the last few months were bought at the station.

But the agents do more than sell tickets. They provide information about the community to passengers who get off in Havre — two people sat in the station two hours Wednesday because no one was there to tell them places they could visit while waiting. They check luggage. They answer questions —  such as is the train on time, saving people having to go through an automated telephone recording. And they even can save a life.

A passenger who had internal bleeding found that out when a Havre ticket agent called a cab to get him to the hospital, and checked in his luggage to hold it till he could eventually return to get back on the train in Havre — after being flown to Great Falls for emergency medical care.

And Amtrak is cutting service or quality of service all over the country, removing more and more ticket agents, doing less work to refurbish or upgrade long-distance trains, even cutting hot meals from some routes.

This is a reversal from last decade, such as when in 2005 it refurbished cars on the Empire Builder and promoted the train. Ridership rose to new record levels in  2007 and 2008. Then ridership dropped. While that was in the start of the Great Recession, a lack of care, improvement and promotion has a lot to do with declining ridership — and canceling things like ticket agents and dining cars will do nothing but drive numbers down more.

Five years ago, more than half The Empire Builder stations had ticket agents, now only one-third do. Amtrak says doing things like cutting ticket agents in small stations is being a good steward of the taxpayers’ money.

But riders buy tickets, producing revenue. If Amtrak intentionally or unintentionally drives away riders, it loses money.

The good steward attitude also misses a very important point — most Amtrak riders are taxpayers, too.

Cutting their services and making using Amtrak more difficult is not being a good steward of their money.

And it begs the question, why does the service exist?

Amtrak was created to provide passenger rail service when private railroads stopped doing that — much as the government created Essential Air Service after airline deregulation to make sure small communities like Havre, which airlines would not serve due to lack of profits, had air service.

And railroads found they could not make profits with passenger rail.

The Empire Builder had been the pride of the Great Northern Railway, named in honor of its founder, James Hill. After Great Northern stopped running it, when Amtrak started operating in 1971, it named its train on the same route The Empire Builder.

With increasing alternate transportation like cars and airlines, running a profitable passenger rail service became impossible. That is why private railways quit doing it and why the National Passenger Rail Corp. was created by an act of Congress in 1970.

Some act as if Amtrak should make a profit. Why they believe that is not clear, as no other transportation system does — in itself. The national highway system, primarily funded by the federal government, does not make a profit.

Taxes generated by business allowed by the highways might, though.

The federal government provides funding for airline travel including infrastructure and the Transportation Security Administration. That does not make a profit, although the connected economic activity might.

And no passenger rail service in the world makes a profit — although the economic activity related to rail travel might.

But one purpose of government is to provide services that people need that private industry can’t or won’t.

Private companies won’t build and maintain interstate highways because they wouldn’t make a profit. So the government did.

Likewise, private industry won’t run a national passenger rail service because there is no profit. So the government does.

Many people — many who are the taxpayers who Amtrak says it is trying to serve better — like to ride the train. Many need to ride the train. Many, especially in locations like Montana’s Hi-Line region but also in many other places in the country, really have no other alternative.

Amtrak cut even more ticket agent positions in Montana on the Empire Builder route this month. It plans to or has cut ticket agents from more routes this year. It has cut hot meal service from some routes, and probably plans to do more. It talks about limiting or eliminating routes that do not have positive speed control in place by the end of the year. Rumours abound that it will cut the number of days of service of long-distance routes — as it did to the Empire Builder in the 1990s until people arose in complaint.

What National Passenger Rail Corp. is doing is not providing effective national passenger rail service, and people need to rise up.

Not just people in Havre and Shelby, but people throughout the country. Anyone who would like to or needs to use passenger rail — whether it is riding the trains or having someone ride to them — needs to contact their members of Congress and the Amtrak administration.

They need to tell them to fix the problem — not the problem of expenses but the problem of trying to kill a needed service.


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