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GUEST VIEW

Fix Amtrak first

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Empire Builder

In this photo taken on Sept. 18, 2011, Amtrak's Empire Builder rounds a turn near East Glacier Park.

Since its formation in 2020, the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority (BSPRA) has been successful in touting its mission to reestablish rail passenger service through southern Montana. Enthusiasm for the project was heightened in November 2021 with the passage of Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), which — for the first time in its 51-year history — has designated significant funding for Amtrak, America’s intercity rail passenger service.

But often lost in press releases by the BSPRA and in recent news articles are what should be the primary goals for the funding: Fixing the Amtrak’s infrastructure and placing it on a path of sustainability.

Contrary to highways, waterways and airports which receive recurring lavish funding from numerous government entities, Amtrak has always been a shoestring operation since its 1971 inception, and relies on private infrastructure (i.e. America’s freight railroads) for most of its routes, including in Montana.

Amtrak is currently broken. In the Northeast — where Amtrak owns and maintains its own trackage — routes need upgrades to handle more traffic and to repair deferred maintenance, some of which goes back to damage caused by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. On other routes (like the Empire Builder through northern Montana) trains operate short of rolling stock with equipment over 40 years old. Many station facilities remain noncompliant with ADA guidelines, and the host freight railroads are undercompensated for operating Amtrak trains, resulting in timekeeping issues. Without repairing and stabilizing the Amtrak we have, adding additional routes like a North Coast Hiawatha is counterproductive.

Based on a 2009 study done by Amtrak, restoring the North Coast Hiawatha would cost about $1.4 billion in 2022 dollars. Much has changed in railroad operations since 2009 (during the Great Recession), so indeed a new study to determine cost would be needed. Even with that hefty price tag, the 2009 study dramatically understated cost for stations and some track infrastructure. The capital costs alone for this one route will consume a good portion of the funding available for new services.

The elephant in the room rarely mentioned by proponents of new routes is that operations funding is not perpetual. (For Amtrak’s current Chicago-West Coast routes – according to questionable Amtrak accounting — that’s about $55 million annually per train.) The IIJA covers operations funding for only six years, covering 90% the first year declining to 30% by the sixth year before being discontinued. Any shortfall and funding beyond the sixth year must be covered by Congress in the annual Amtrak appropriation. This is why the North Coast Hiawatha was discontinued in 1979: It (and other trains) were added over the course of the decade; When Congress declined to no longer fully fund all the routes, some were discontinued. The same thing could happen again, possibly even to long-established, well-patronized trains such as the Empire Builder.

We must urge that our elected and appointed officials see that the Amtrak we have is fixed and strengthened before building on a house of cards.

Mark Meyer has been a passenger train advocate for over 50 years. He had a 40-year career in railroad operations at Burlington Northern and BNSF. He is a native of Cut Bank, and now lives in Portland, Oregon. 

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