Tester defends long-distance Amtrak service for rural Montana
Senator pressures agency officials to make smart investments in America’s commuter rail system with rural America — and towns like Havre and Shelby — in mind
Last updated 6/28/2019 at 9:51am
From the office of Sen. Jon Tester
Following the Trump Administration’s repeated attempts to cut rail funding in rural America, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., pressed Amtrak officials on their failure to invest in long-distance commuter rail lines that connect rural areas to the rest of the country.
The Trump Administration’s budget for Fiscal Year 2020 cuts Amtrak’s budget by nearly 25 percent, or $455 million.
In this week's Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing, Tester questioned Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson on the organization’s plans to invest in rural connectivity despite attempts to undermine long-distance commuter rail services — such as the Empire Builder Line in Montana — and close stations and ticket offices in remote areas, like Havre and Shelby.
“I really hope, moving forward, that we try to make Amtrak all it can be,” Tester said. “But we can’t forget about the rural areas. In two small towns, that happen to be fairly close to where I live, there were ticket offices that were closed. … If we’re not going to leave rural America out, how do we make it so these folks in rural areas — who quite frankly will use the train — how do we make it work for them?”
Tester has repeatedly condemned the decision to close rural ticket offices after more than 400 northern Montana residents signed a petition calling for their restoration. Many Montanans do not have access to a single broadband provider, making it unnecessarily difficult for them to take the train as Amtrak moves towards their goal of an online-only ticket purchase system.
Tester also pressured Anderson to make carefully planned investments in the Amtrak long-distance rail system so America’s small towns can be better connected to other rural and urban communities.
“If we don’t make the investment we’re never going to get the dividend,” Tester said. “I would just encourage you to keep pushing very, very hard to make sure that we don’t just have a good passenger service in areas with high populations. The bottom line is that we need your advocacy to make smart investments that work well for the American public.”
Amtrak operates 15 long-distance routes in 47 states across the country, connecting rural and urban centers and providing inter-state mobility to underserved communities and populations. Amtrak’s Empire Builder Long-Distance Line — spanning from Chicago to Seattle — includes 12 stations along the Montana Hi-Line, which served 121,429 passengers who boarded or disembarked in Montana last year.
During a Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing last week, Tester raised serious concerns to Federal Railroad Administrator Ronald Batory about the Administration’s lack of long-term planning for Amtrak programs in rural areas. In the same hearing, he advocated for the creation of a committee representing rural-based stakeholders to better plan for the future of national rail services.
As part of his #ConnectMT initiative, Tester has been a champion of improving access to long-distance commuter rails in America. He recently led a bipartisan effort to strengthen rural Amtrak service and hold the Trump Administration accountable for attempts to gut funding for the Empire Builder Line and was instrumental in negotiating a bipartisan budget deal earlier this year that granted full-funding to Amtrak’s long-distance services.
A report from the U.S. House Appropriations Committee on its 2020 appropriations bill on Transportation and Housing and Urban Development directed Amtrak to provide for long-distance rail service.
“The Committee strongly reminds Amtrak that Section 24701 of title 49, United States Code, requires Amtrak to operate a national passenger rail system,” the committee said in its report June 4. “Further, the Committee directs Amtrak to seek any potential changes to the National Network through the reauthorization of the (Fixing America’s Surface Transportation) Act and urges Amtrak to ensure any such proposals also increase ridership in rural areas and improve service for long-distance customers.”
The report said the committee was not funding grants to provide to states for transition to their operating long-distance routes, which the president’s administration proposed, saying thatdue to low ridership in rural areas rail transportation could be replaced with bus services.
“The Committee strongly rejects this proposal and provides strong funding for Amtrak to continue to provide service through long-distance and state-supported trains,” it said.
The report also directed Amtrak to provide a station agent in each station where ticket sales were cut last year, with duties to “assist passengers with their intercity passenger rail travel, conduct the sale of tickets, provide customer service during all hours the station is open and peform building maintenance duties.”
It also directs Amtrak to use a public procedure when it is considering changes to its policies.
“Amtrak must engage in an open and transparent process which encompasses anyone who could be impacted, positively or negatively, by such proposals,” it said.
Havre Daily News staff contributed to this report.