By Tim Leeds 

Empire Builder back to seven days a week

 

Last updated 5/25/2021 at 11:47am



After seven months of running only three days a week, the Hi-Line is again seeing the Empire Builder run twice a day across the railroad tracks.

Amtrak — which had its 50th anniversary this month — had cut long-distance service last summer, including the Empire Builder that crosses the Hi-Line as it runs from Chicago to Seattle and Portland, citing reduced numbers of passengers due to the pandemic.

The members of Montana’s congressional delegation had been working to restore the service almost as soon as it was announced.

The American Recovery Plan Act passed in March and signed into law by President Joe Biden includes a bill sponsored by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and co-sponsored by Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., to appropriate funds specifically to restore the long-distance routes and put furloughed workers back to work.


“Montanans from Wolf Point to Libby rely on the Empire Builder to visit family and friends, conduct business, and stay connected with the rest of the country, and these cuts were an unacceptable attack on our frontier communities,” Tester said in a release Monday. “Today is a great day for thousands who live and work on the Hi-Line. I was proud to lead this fight to return full, daily Amtrak service to Montana, which will reinstate furloughed employees, boost the local economy, and get folks back to work across our state.”

“I’m glad to see the Empire Builder return to full daily service,” Daines said in a statement sent to Havre Daily News this morning. “Accessible, affordable transportation for folks in Montana is critical and these services will help boost Montana jobs and tourism along the Hi-Line.”


Rep. Matt Rosendale, R-Mont., who was elected after the service cuts were made, has been supportive of getting back to normal after the pandemic and this is a step in the right direction, Rosendale spokesperson Harry Fones said.

Tester’s release noted he was the only member of Montana’s congressional delegation to vote for the American Recovery Plan Act that included the restoration.

A spokesperson for Daines said he fought for the restoration of full-time service from the beginning but “did not support the final nearly $2 trillion package it was tucked into because it was filled with tons of liberal priorities of Biden, Schumer and Pelosi that the senator did not believe Montanans should foot the bill for.”


Fones said Rosendale voted against the act “because it was not actually targeted for pandemic relief, especially considering that there was already a trillion dollars allocated for pandemic relief that was sitting unused.”

The Poynter Institute’s Politifact service rated that claim half-true when it was raised by Rep. Steven Scalise, R-La., in February.

Politifact reported that while about a trillion dollars was unused at that point, that included money that was approved in December and had not yet been disbursed, although a large share of the trillion had been allocated or was scheduled to be spent, some over several years.

Tester’s release included praise from numerous Hi-Line officials, including Havre Mayor Tim Solomon and Bear Paw Development Corp. Executive Director Paul Tuss, who spoke about the need for full service at a Senate hearing that Tester secured to talk last fall about Amtrak.

“Restoring daily service to the Empire Builder and returning ticket agents to Havre and Shelby will help northern Montana recover from the economic calamity of the pandemic,” Tuss said in the release. “Senator Tester has pushed tirelessly on this issue because he knows firsthand how important reliable train service is to the economy of rural Montana, and we are grateful for his work to bring it back.”

“On behalf of the City of Havre I want to thank Senator Jon Tester for all his hard work restoring daily service to the Empire Builder,” Solomon said in the release. “Daily service will help our Main Street businesses that have depended on Amtrak for decades get back on their feet, provide a boost to our local economy, and create jobs for folks here in Havre and across the Hi-Line.”

Amtrak spokesperson Marc Magliari said the service also continues to include customer service agents in Havre as well as Shelby, Whitefish and Glacier National Park.

He said the agents can help customers make a reservation, can take a payment by credit card or debit card and confirm the booking. Cash is not accepted for ticket purchases at this point, he said.

The customer service representatives also provide train status information, assist with boarding, handle checked baggage and facilitate transportation of unaccompanied minors, he added.

That was another fight taken on by members of Montana’s congressional delegation as well as from other states.

Amtrak cut ticket agents from numerous stations across the country in 2018 if the stations that did not average at least 40 passengers a day.

Congress in 2019 ordered Amtrak to restore customer service agents to stations that lost their ticket agents in 2018 if they averaged at least 25 passengers a day.

Customer service agents are back in Havre and Shelby, Magliari said.

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Online: Politifact check on Scalise statement on COVID relief: https://www.politifact.com/factchecks/2021/feb/23/steve-scalise/has-1-trillion-covid-19-relief-gone-unspent .

 

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