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Tester, Daines denounce Amtrak service cuts

by CHAD SOKOL
Daily Inter Lake | October 22, 2020 12:00 AM

U.S. senators on Wednesday questioned the chief of Amtrak about job cuts and service reductions on the carrier's long-distance passenger train routes, including the Empire Builder line that serves a dozen mostly rural communities in northern Montana.

William Flynn, who became Amtrak's president and CEO in April, testified that ridership remains down about 80% due to the coronavirus pandemic. That, he said, forced Amtrak to reduce service on most of its long-distance trains to just three days a week.

Those reductions started Monday. Flynn sought to assure senators the cuts are intended to be temporary.

"In addition, until our ridership recovers, we must make difficult workforce adjustments," he said. "We cannot continue to indefinitely fund a workforce that's too large for the number of passengers we now serve."

The hearing of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee was requested by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, who called the Empire Builder "the backbone of the small towns that dot across Montana's Hi-Line."

"It keeps those rural communities connected. It brings in tourists, outside money and it creates jobs," he said. "And the truth of the matter is our state cannot afford to lose those critical services that Amtrak provides."

Sen. Steve Daines, a Montana Republican up for re-election this year, echoed those concerns and said he has pushed to block Amtrak from cutting jobs.

"Daily service on the Empire Builder is essential to providing Montanans access to health care and is critical to our local economy ... by bringing thousands each year to visit our communities, our pristine wilderness and our national parks," said Daines, who does not sit on the committee. "I remain hopeful that Congress can come together and pass a bipartisan relief bill, which I will fight to ensure includes adequate funding for Amtrak and a guarantee on returning staff and daily service."

Until this week, the Empire Builder ran daily from Chicago to Seattle to Portland. Stops in Montana include Wolf Point, Glasgow, Malta, Havre, Shelby, Cut Bank, Browning, East Glacier Park, Essex, West Glacier, Whitefish and Libby.

Paul Tuss, executive director of Montana's Bear Paw Development Corp., said Whitefish is the busiest stop on the Empire Builder's path, with more than 55,000 passengers boarding or disembarking there in a typical year. More than 121,000 riders boarded or disembarked the train in Montana in 2019, he said.

Tester, who last year pushed Amtrak to restore ticket agents at the Havre and Shelby stations, called recent Amtrak policies "tone-deaf" to the needs of rural communities and said he's "particularly stunned by the Trump administration's annual efforts to gut Amtrak."

"The Trump administration fought to end long-distance service, which would have meant the end to the Empire Builder in Montana," Tester said. "Since then, they've attempted to cut the budget in half, leading to where we are today as Montanans lose service. This is unacceptable and it's hurting our economy."

Flynn said $1 billion in assistance from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act kept Amtrak afloat through fiscal 2020, but most of that money has been spent and the quasi-public corporation needs up to $4.9 billion in total funding to operate through the next year. Congress has approved only a stopgap spending resolution that funds Amtrak at last year's levels. Amtrak also receives funding from states.

Amtrak also has cut service to three days a week for most of its other long-distance trains, including the California Zephyr, Capitol Limited, City of New Orleans, Coast Starlight, Crescent, Lake Shore Limited, Palmetto, Southwest Chief and Texas Eagle.

Tester, Tuss and Flynn each said it would be difficult to boost ridership to pre-pandemic levels if the service reductions prompt people to switch to alternative modes of long-distance transportation.

Flynn said Amtrak is working with public health experts at George Washington University to study how air flows in its various train cars – and how it might spread the virus – but he couldn't immediately say when that research would be publicly available.

Amtrak, he said, has implemented masking, social distancing and cleaning protocols and is "communicating the steps that we've taken to build some level of assurance and confidence, so that when passengers are ready to travel, they select Amtrak."

Reporter Chad Sokol can be reached at 758-4439 or csokol@dailyinterlake.com