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Rail advocates urge action to protect long-distance trains

 

Havre Daily News/Ryan Welch

Amtrak's Empire Builder heads east after leaving Havre Tuesday afternoon.

Editor’s note: This corrects reporting that Amtrak had eliminated private car services, which was discussed but not done.

Some rail passenger advocates are taking up cuts to Amtrak service in Havre and proposals to reduce service from Kansas to New Mexico as a battle cry to fight any reduction to long-distance passenger rail in the country.

"Havre, Montana, to me, was the first battle cry and that's why I got involved with (Sen.) Jon Tester," said Dan Engstrom, resident of Seattle, Washington, and former employee of Amtrak. "The American people need to stand up. You guys in Havre, I have to congratulate you. You did everything you could possibly do."

In June, Amtrak removed ticket agents in its stations in Havre and Shelby, two stations among more than a dozen in the country scheduled to lose ticket agents. Amtrak representatives said stations with fewer than 40 passengers a day were having ticket agents cut because most tickets now are purchased online or using Amtrak's phone service.

Then Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson told lawmakers in late June that the passenger rail service was considering ending service by the Southwest Chief between Dodge City, Kansas, and Albuquerque, New Mexico, and using a bus connection on the route.

Engstrom, a 41-year Amtrak employee with the last seven of those years working in the sales and marketing department, said he has a history of working on the Empire Builder that runs through Havre on its way from Chicago to the West Coast, as well as knowing the stations on its route. He has also promoted trains all his life and is very proud of Empire Builder's history, he said.

Engstrom said the Empire Builder and other long distance trains are being attacked by what he perceives as President Donald Trump's administration, filtered down through the current CEO of Amtrak. He added that two and possibly three members of the Amtrak board, which hired Anderson - a former airline executive - were appointed by Trump.

Engstrom said he has called Tester's office often in the past couple months and sent a letter to Tester May 8 in which he voiced his concerns about Amtrak, including telling Tester, "They are going to tell you this is all because of e-ticketing ... but are not all the airlines on e-ticketing and do they still not have personnel at the airport to get you on the plane?"

All three members of Montana's congressional delegation said they are continuing to work to support long-distance rail like the Empire Builder.

"Whether it is cutting staff, eliminating rail lines, or gutting funding, the Trump Administration's recent proposals to eliminate long distance Amtrak routes like the Empire Builder are totally unacceptable," Tester said Monday in an email to the Havre Daily News. "I will continue to hold Amtrak accountable to rural communities that count on this important rail service and I will defend Hill County from any further cuts that could undermine our economy."

Tester sent letters to Anderson saying the service needs to keep the ticket agents in the Montana stations, as did Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., and Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Mont.

Daines brought the issue up during a May 16 hearing in the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies.

The senator point-blank asked Amtrak executive Stephen Gardner if Amtrak plans to cut service on the long-distance Empire Builder line, a Daines spokesperson said Monday in an email to the Havre Daily.

Gardner responded by saying Amtrak does not plan to move from daily to tri-weekly service, and that "any conversations about the broad future of the network, I think, is best placed in our reauthorization context as we approach the next reauthorization," the spokesperson said.

"The senator believes Amtrak provides a critical service to Montanans, especially those living in rural areas. He will continue fighting for Amtrak's long-term sustainability," she added.

A spokesman for Rep. Gianforte's office said in an email Sunday that the representative also continues to support long-distance rail service.

"Greg will continue working to protect reliable access to rail service for our rural areas and ensure Amtrak provides Montanans with the resources they need to take the train," he said.

Marc Magliari, public relations manager for Amtrak, referenced Gardner's comments to Daines as far as questions about service on the Empire Builder.

"During conversations with members of the Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico congressional delegations, Amtrak indicated that we are considering various service options for the Southwest Chief in response to the significant host railroad costs facing Amtrak for continued use of the middle portion of the route between Dodge City and Albuquerque," he said in a statement. "These options will consider the long-term operating and capital costs of continuing current service over the entire route and alternate bus and rail service combinations that would ensure continued transportation service and connections to the Amtrak rail network for all communities along the route.  

"The Southwest Chief is unique in that it is the only route where a significant section of infrastructure is owned by a host railroad - BNSF Railway - but solely used by Amtrak. Significant future costs are facing Amtrak to upgrade the BNSF track. Amtrak is thoroughly analyzing the route and considering the appropriate strategies for enhancing safety for operations after the December 2018 federal deadline for Positive Train Control," he said in the statement.

Engstrom said the new actions are just the latest in what seems to be a desire by Trump to get rid of long-distance rail service.

He said that even though the Trump administration opposed long-distant lines, the budget that was approved was the largest amount of money that Amtrak had ever received in its entire history. With $1.6 billion slated for long-distance services and train, the largest subsidy Amtrak has ever recieved, Anderson is still cutting services, he said.

"The future is not looking good for Amtrak," Engstrom said.

"I am really nervous about what they are going to try to do with Amtrak," he added. "Where the company seems to be going is working on getting rid of long-distance trains, which is the thing that binds our country together."

Passenger Rail Association member Mark Meyer, a Cut Bank native now living in Portland, Oregon, said the situation with the Southwest Chief - which is the only train that runs on the tracks on the route, which are owned by BNSF - is much different than that of the Empire Builder, but people should be worried.

"I think the goal is to get rid of long-distance trains," he said.

He added that Amtrak is mandated to run a national system.

"Congress sets guideline," Meyer said. "Voters pick the Congress."

Engstrom said what was disturbing about the situation is that the changes seemed to be coming from within the company itself rather than being imposed by politicians.

The first thing Amtrak did six months ago, he said, was eliminate the sales and marketing department, which was primarily used to promote long distance trains.

"(Anderson) literally gutted the entire department all over the country," Engstrom said.

He added that one of the many jobs of the sales and marketing department was to do sales promotions and create coupons and deals for riders, such as sales promotions in Whitefish during the winters promoting winter vacations and skiing.

"Because of Amtrak, over $1 million in revenue went into the city of Whitefish from Amtrak travelers, coming in the winter for a winter vacation," Engstrom said.

He added that within the past year Amtrak and Anderson proposed to cut all discounts for veterans, seniors and students, but after receiving strong opposition Amtrak withdrew the proposals, although it has cut some discounts

Engstrom said discounts are for promoting business, encouraging ridership, if Amtrak wanted to gain more revenue by increasing customers it would encourage promotions and discounts rather than cutting them.

He added that Amtrak has also started to eliminate the charter department, which allows large groups, to add additional cars for them to use to travel.

Engstrom said Amtrak had discussed eliminating services for private car owners, - about 450 private cars are in the United States - a revenue source for the company. Those private cars are mostly used for specialty tours.

Amtrak has also made big cuts to the dining cars nationwide, Engstrom added, with some trains serving cold box lunches even to those who are riding long distance, such as the Capital Limited that in on the Chicago to Washington, D.C., route.

"Dining cars are the heart and soul of every long distance train," he said, and is what sets long-distance trains apart from other transportation services for many riders.

Engstrom said Amtrak provides many benefits that other transportation cannot compare with, such as being the most fuel-efficient transportation for long-distance routes, being environmentally friendly, promoting tourism in rural areas, being an effective mode of transportation during bad winter conditions and being comfortable.

"People are not going to ride on a train, in couch seats, for three days and not be able to get up and go have a nice meal in the dining cars," he said.

All in addition to losing 15 staffed stations this year, Engstrom said, with Amtrak ticket agents being replaced by caretakers, who are not Amtrak employees. He added that ticket agents have many jobs and responsibilities that a caretaker cannot provide.

Engstrom added that it is an "attack on union labor."

"What Anderson is doing," Engstrom said, "is downgrading services, downgrading Amtrak. Employees that are working for the company now, are certainly disheartened and dismayed about their future.

"It's all diminutive, in every sence of the word, and is so irresponsible. There is a huge call within all the Amtrak employees for (Anderson) to be fired," he said

Engstrom added that he would personally like to see a complete congressional investigation of what's going on.

He said people in rural areas also are federal taxpayers and have just as much right to have access to reliable long distance service as people who are in largely populated areas, such as New York state and Washington, D.C.

He said once the long-distance trains are gone there is no way of getting them back.

 

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