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Rail passenger president urges support to keep Amtrak running

 

Havre Daily News/Ryan Berry

RPA president Jim Mathews speaks with attendees during a break at the Rail Passengers Association Northwest Division meeting Saturday at the Elk's Lodge in Cut Bank.

Rail passenger advocates Saturday in Cut Bank made arguments that the federal government should be increasing, not cutting back, its investment in Amtrak.

Rail Passengers Association President and CEO Jim Mathews said during RPA's Northwest Division annual meeting that the time is good to push for money for Amtrak, but the association needs the help of the people who ride the train.

"The reason any of this works is because the folks who live here, work here, raise their families here and vote here call, write, email and say, 'I live here, I work here, I raise my family here and I vote here and this is important to me," Mathews said. "That's what I'm armed with when I go visit these folks on the Hill, it's not me, it's not the staff, it's the fact that we have thousands of people who are willing to stand up and be counted."

The meeting came in the wake of attempts to cut some of Amtrak's Southwest Chief service and cuts to ticket agents from stations, including in Havre and Shelby.

President Donald Trump's proposed budget plans to give grants to states to use for long-distance rail service and to eventually phase out federal funding of long-distance trains.

In the funding passed this year to keep the federal government operating, the full route of the Southwest Chief was continued and Amtrak was ordered to put customer service agents back in the stations where ticket agents were cut last year. Amtrak has said ticket agents will not go back to those stations, but customer service agents would be hired.

At Saturday's meeting, representatives of the national congressional delegation, local legislators, community leaders and community members discussed rail passenger services, and the conference also celebrated the Empire Builder's 90th year of continued service.

Rail Passenger Association Vice Chair Emeritus and master of ceremonies Art Poole of Oregon said that before Mathews became president of the Rail Passenger Association in 2014 he worked as the executive editor and chief editor for aviation and space technology magazines for 26 years. He also served as a firefighter and medic for 13 years.

Poole added that Mathews is familiar with the transportation industry and his background in the aviation industry is helpful to the association.

"You can't pull the wool over his eyes in those matters," Poole said.

Mathews said that support of passenger rail services has grown on a federal level and the key to securing services in the future is for communities to support the service.

He said that since be became involved with the association in 2014 the nature of the conversation with members of Congress has changed from people questioning the need of long-distance rail services to almost every member's office understanding the critical need for passenger rail services.

"That's a dramatic change from where we were four years ago," he said. "The questions now are more along the lines of why can't Amtrak be better? Why can't this be changed?"

He added that the association has visited more than 300 offices of members of Congress in the past year and in practically every office people are interested and passionate about supporting passenger rail services. Mathews said that many of the offices has requested more information from the association or assistance of drafting language, data and input.

The change was because of people who voiced their concerns, he said.

"It takes a long time," he said. "... But keep with it, because it is working."

How Amtrak makes money for the community

Arguments against passenger rail services about profitability are surfacing again, he said, such as the opinion editorial piece published May 3 by The Washington Post's editorial board titled "Amtrak has reached a crossroads. Congress can help."

The editorial board argues that the federal government should not invest money in Amtrak if it is not making any profit, he said.

He added that the concern has become a repetitive theme and is not a new argument against passenger rail services.

The concern that Amtrak is not cost-effective is not accurate, he said. RPA has been working with University of Southern Mississippi's Center for Logistics, Trade and Transportation Research Professor Yuanyuan Zhang to show the direct and indirect benefits of passenger rail services.

Trains like the Empire Builder make money, Mathews said, but not for Amtrak. He said passenger rail services has great value to families, reservations, businesses and local governments by providing clean, safe public transportation, and brings money to communities where the trains stop.

"Passenger trains make money, but not for the railroads that operate them," he said.

Using Cut Bank as an example, he said, the station saw about 2,400 passengers last year. The passengers created more than $378,725 for the community. He added that the $378,725 came to the community through spending from people who would have not traveled to Cut Bank without the rail service and an increase in property value, reduced traffic crashes, and reduced maintenance on roads and highways .

The Rail Passenger Association has been able to collect similar data from other counties on the Hi-Line using the University of Montana's tourism and recreation research data which found Amtrak brings $3.4 million in spending to the state of Montana.

"That's what the Empire Builder does for the state of Montana, just in that category alone, induced visitor spending," Mathews said.

The state also saves money on highway maintenance, he said. The money isn't additional income but by reducing the need for road maintenance the funds are able to be used elsewhere. The avoided automotive vehicle miles traveled saves the state a total of $1.4 million in accident spending and $26 million in maintenance.

He added that the numbers are also a conservative estimate due to a number of factors playing a roll.

Mathews said that $57.6 million is appropriated for passenger rail service on the Empire Builder route through seven states, and in all states, including Montana, communities get a high return.

"That's a pretty good return on investment," he said. "These communities make money and thrive because we have an Empire Builder."

Long distance ridership

He added that another argument against passenger rail services is low ridership in rural areas. If the ridership at each station is looked at, he said it does show low ridership, but what people should be looking at is riders for the whole line, which is significantly higher.

Mathews said that the Rail Passengers Association needs updated testimonials from riders. The testimonials that association has are getting out of date. He added that what they want in the testimonials is how passenger rail services impact people's lives. Indian reservations, mayors, local businesses, chambers of commerce and community members are all able to send their testimonials. He added that photographs are also welcome.

"We can give you the tools and we can advocate in D.C., but this doesn't work without you guys doing the work that you do, talking to your local folks, because that is where this actually works," he said.

In the past, many politicians in Washington, D.C., have not been supportive of long distance rail systems, he said, even encouraging people to move to more populated areas where sufficient transportation is available.

"Small communities have a right to exist," Mathews said. "... This is, I think, a really exciting time to be in rail advocacy. We have a congress that is largely unified in its desire to maintain and grow rail service."

 

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