Empire Builder tops Amtrak long-distance trains for ridership


Last updated 11/25/2019 at 1:29pm

Editor’s note: This version adds comments from an Amtrak spokesman about comparing ridership from now to 10 years ago and clarifies his not commenting on an appropriations bill at this stage of the process.

While a bill that would restore ticket agents to Amtrak stations awaits action in Congress, the national passenger rail service released data showing the Empire Building, which runs across Montana’s Hi-Line, has the highest ridership of any long-distance train.

According to recent data published from Amtrak, the Empire Builder was the single most-ridden Amtrak long-distance train last year, with a total of 433,372 riders in the fiscal year of 2019.

The Empire Builder was also the most-ridden Amtrak long-distance train in 2018 with 428,854 riders. The second-highest ridden long-distance train was the California Zephyr for both 2018 and 2019.

Rail Passenger Association Representative-At-Large Mark Meyer said that it is a positive to see the Empire Builder has had high ridership, although ridership is still significantly lower than it was a decade ago.

“The FY 2019 ridership was about 120,000 less than Empire Builder ridership in 2008 at 554,000 or so,” Meyer said. 

But ridership may have been higher a decade ago because at the time the equipment for the Empire Builder was refurbished, the on board amenities upgraded and the train was promoted through advertising, he said. Meyer added that this is not the case today. 

“I am afraid nothing will change unless there is a change of leadership at Amtrak,” he said.

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said that was also when the Bakken oil boom was happening in North Dakota and northeastern Montana, and comparing then to now is not valid.

In June of last year, Amtrak cut the ticket agents from 16 stations in the country including in Havre and Shelby as a cost-saving measure. Amtrak said that the cuts were due to customers purchasing their tickets on the internet or through automated telephone ticket purchasing. The criteria for Amtrak cut staffing at stations that averaged fewer than 40 passengers a day in order to be “good stewards of taxpayer dollars.”

The decision was locally opposed by many people, some of whom said the cuts and changes ignored the other services ticket agents performed such as ticket agents assisting passengers with luggage, medical care and other services. Removing ticket agents also restricts children to board the train unless an adult guardian is traveling with them. Ticket agents were replaced with station caretakers, who are not official Amtrak employees and unable to provide the same services as ticket agents.

In response to a number of complaints, national congress-ional delegates have put forth a bill to require Amtrak to restore ticket agents to a number of stations which have been cut. 

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., announced in September he had inserted language in an appropriations bill to benefit Montana, including language and funding requiring Amtrak to bring ticket agents back to a number of the stations where they eliminated in 2018.

“In a rural state like Montana, our airports, rail and highway systems serve as vital links for our economy,” Tester said in a press release about the bill. “If we don’t keep investing in those systems, we’ll never see the dividends. This bill puts gas in the tank so we can continue building up our airports, shoring up our rail system along the Hi-Line, and giving our farmers and ranchers the tools to get products to market — keeping the engines of our economy humming.”

The legislation includes a large boost in funding for Amtrak, increasing Amtrak’s general funding to $2 billion, $58.4 million more than last year, which will keep long-distance routes, including the Empire Builder that runs along Montana’s Hi-Line, operating.

One of Tester’s additions was to require Amtrak to restore ticket agents to stations from which it eliminated them in 2018 if they average at least 25 passengers a day.

U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., also voted to approve the bill.

Tester’s Press Secretary Sarah Feldman said in an email that the Senate passed the bill last month and it is in a conference committee to resolve differences with the with the House version of the appropriations bill. 

“Sen. Tester is continuing to push to keep the Amtrak/ticket agent language included,” she said.

Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Mont., both of whom have said they support Amtrak’s long-distance trains and bringing back ticket agents, did not respond to requests for comment.

In February, President Donald Trump signed a budget agreement which would prevent the federal government from re-entering a shutdown. This legislation included funding for Amtrak, contingent on Amtrak providing a station agent in each of its stations that had ticket agent positions eliminated in fiscal year 2018.

Amtrak said that it was already in compliance with the directive by having station caretakers at the stations.

In its report on its version of the appropriations bill in which Tester inserted the ticket agent language, the House Appropriations Committee also told Amtrak to improve its work in several areas, including restoring ticket agents.

Magliari said commenting on the appropriations bill in the conference committee at this time would be premature.


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