Credit: Justin Franz / MTFP

For more than 70 years, skiers have been taking the Empire Builder to Whitefish. In the early 1940s, before ski runs were even cut onto the face of Big Mountain, the Great Northern Railway was helping survey the area for a resort, and once Winter Sports, Inc. was formed in 1947, the railroad did more than its fair promotional share to attract passengers.

Even after the Empire Builder route was taken over by Amtrak in the 1970s, and as air has become tourists’ preferred means of travel to the Flathead Valley, Whitefish Mountain Resort and the local chamber of commerce still promote rail as a great way to get to the slopes. Kevin Gartland, executive director of the Whitefish Chamber of Commerce, likes to tell people that you can board the train in Portland or Seattle on Friday night and arrive in Whitefish before first chair on Saturday. 

“Amtrak and the Empire Builder are a big part of this community,” Gartland said. “Whitefish is a railroad town.”

But it will be a little harder to make a weekend ski trip on the Empire Builder this winter as Amtrak reduces service on the only passenger train traversing Montana to just three days a week as part of a wave of cuts brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Starting the week of Oct. 19, the Empire Builder will stop in Whitefish and the 10 other Montana communities it services only on Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays traveling westbound, and Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays heading east. 

For some Montana communities, the passenger train is a lifeline, one of the few public transportation options in places like Browning, Shelby and Glasgow. But for Whitefish, the busiest stop along the route between the Twin Cities and Seattle, the train is a conveyor for tourists.  

Like the rest of the travel sector, Amtrak ridership has been decimated by the pandemic. Within weeks of COVID-19’s arrival in the United States, passenger counts dropped by 95%. In September, Amtrak President and CEO William Flynn told Congress the railroad was losing $250 million a month and that drastic steps would have to be taken to stave off bankruptcy. On Sept. 30, about 100 management employees were furloughed, and nearly 2,000 union employees are expected to be laid off over the coming month, including in Montana, where the railroad employs about 40 people. Amtrak spokesperson Marc Magliari was unable to say exactly how many employees will be impacted. 

Amtrak’s CEO has said the service reductions and furloughs will be “temporary,” and the company has released a white paper outlining how it plans to restore daily service on each route. Before the Empire Builder could return to full steam, hospitalizations from COVID-19 would have to be on the decline along the route, and advance reservations would have to be at 90% percent of early 2020 levels. Amtrak officials have said they can bring the train back to daily service in May or June of 2021 if those criteria are met. But not everyone believes Amtrak’s plan is realistic. 

“This has been tried before and it just didn’t work. They’re hurting the business more than they are helping.”

Barry Green, Montana representative to the Rail Passengers Association

“We’re skeptical,” said Barry Green, a retired railroader in Glendive and the Montana representative to the Rail Passengers Association, the country’s largest passenger train lobbying group. “I don’t think they can get those numbers to bring it back.” 

Even before the pandemic, Green and others had become frustrated with how Amtrak executives were treating the company’s long-distance trains, which primarily serve rural communities, regarding cuts to the number of station agents and on-board food service. Amtrak executives had been accused of wanting to dismantle the cross-country network so they could focus on more lucrative urban corridors in the east and west. 

Passenger rail advocates say that reducing service to three days a week will do more to harm ridership than to help. They point to a pair of trains on the East Coast that transitioned to the reduced schedule earlier this summer and promptly went from having some of the top ridership numbers among the long-distance routes to the worst

This will not be the first time Amtrak has reduced the Empire Builder from seven days a week to three. On two different occasions, once in the late 1970s and early 1980s and again in the 1990s, the train’s frequency was reduced due to budget issues. Green said that both times, passengers did not adjust their travel plans to the train’s new schedule and instead took their business elsewhere. 

“This has been tried before and it just didn’t work,” he said. “They’re hurting the business more than they are helping.”

Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte all have urged Amtrak not to cut service along the Empire Builder route. Amtrak officials have said the cuts could be avoided with additional funding from Congress. Earlier this week, the House of Representatives introduced legislation giving Amtrak $2.4 billion and directing it to maintain national service; the Senate has not yet taken action on the bill. On Sept. 30, Tester announced that the Senate Commerce Committee would hold a hearing about the future of Amtrak that will feature testimony from people along the Empire Builder route. 

Gartland said the Whitefish Chamber of Commerce has been in frequent contact with the state’s delegation in Washington, D.C. in regards to the coming cuts. He said the reduction in service could have an impact on local tourism this coming winter. In 2019, more than 55,000 Empire Builder passengers boarded or arrived in Whitefish. The Rail Passengers Association also recently released figures indicating that Montana could lose more than $38 million in direct and indirect spending as a result of the reduced service. 

Gartland said he understands that Amtrak is in a tough financial situation, and he hopes the cuts won’t be permanent, not just because of the impacts on local tourism, but because of the impact on a long tradition in Whitefish. 

“This is one of the last trains [you can ride to a ski resort] in the United States,” he said. “We hope the cuts are temporary.”

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This story is published by Montana Free Press as part of the Long Streets Project, which explores Montana’s economy with in-depth reporting. This work is supported in part by a grant from the Greater Montana Foundation, which encourages communication on issues, trends, and values of importance to Montanans. Discuss MTFP’s Long Streets work with Lead Reporter Eric Dietrich at edietrich@montanafreepress.org.

Justin Franz is a freelance writer, photographer and editor based in Whitefish. Originally from Maine, he is a graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism and worked for the Flathead Beacon for nine years. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Seattle Times and New York Times. Find him at justinfranz.com or follow him on Twitter.