Montana Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester have written to Amtrak president and CEO Joseph Boardman urging Amtrak to increase capacity on its Empire Builder line to accommodate impacts by the Bakken oil boom.
“We are hearing from our constituents that Amtrak passenger capacity for Montanans, tourists and other passengers trying to travel through eastern Montana and western North Dakota can be ‘extremely limited.’ The swell of demand for travel into and out of the Bakken region must be addressed,” Baucus and Tester wrote. “The Empire Builder route is an essential part of spurring economic development in northern Montana communities, many of which face great distances to reach the nearest airport.”
With many oil field workers in North Dakota putting in two-week shifts followed by two weeks off, commuting across the state by train has become an attractive option to driving. Amtrak forecasts that ridership at the Williston and Stanley, N.D., stations will double this year over 2011.
While ridership at Williston more than doubled from 2002 to 2011, increasing from 13,328 to 29,200, it’s expected to double again this year to 58,500. The growth in Stanley is similar, where ridership nearly tripled from 2,112 in 2002 to 6,146 last year, but ridership could nearly double again this year to 11,900. The top three points-of-origin for passengers to Williston and Stanley were Minneapolis-St. Paul, Whitefish and Spokane, Wash.
Williston is on track to becoming the busiest station on the Empire Builder’s Chicago to Pacific Northwest run, Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said. Ridership on the Empire Builder from October to March increased by 6.6 percent over the same period in fiscal year 2011, reaching 257,471 passengers.
If Amtrak capacity is increased, it come be a boon to the Flathead tourism industry. Whitefish Visitor and Convention Center executive director Jan Metzmaker said 60,000 passengers use the Whitefish train depot each year.
“Increasing capacity would be great,” she said. “We’d be happy to bring more visitors to Whitefish from Portland and Seattle.”
Whitefish Mountain Resort marketing director Nick Polumbus said about 15 percent of the ski resort’s winter customers arrive in Whitefish by train.
“We do a lot of promotions with Amtrak,” he said. “It would be a big deal to add capacity.”
Both Metzmaker and Polumbus have been lobbying Amtrak to leave extra eastbound passenger cars on a siding in Whitefish. The passenger cars could be hooked up to westbound trains as a way to increase capacity between Whitefish and the West Coast.
“We’re trying to rally support for this idea,” Polumbus said.
This growth in oil field-related ridership coincides with expected increases in freight trains carrying coal from the Powder River basin to half a dozen new coal terminals planned for the West Coast.
According to the Western Organization of Resource Council, BNSF Railway could run 15 to 30 more trains a day along the Hi-Line route shared with Amtrak, moving the coal across Montana.
BNSF currently runs about 30 trains a day along the Hi-Line route. WORC warned that the increase in coal train traffic could create congestion and disruption to Amtrak’s Empire Builder.
Coal from the Powder River basin in Wyoming and southeastern Montana accounts for about 40 percent of U.S. coal production. About 27 percent of BNSF freight revenue in 2010 came from coal shipments.
BNSF hired 415 workers in Montana last year with plans to invest $111 million on maintenance and rail capacity improvement projects in Montana. The company expects to hire 140 new employees this year and spend $3.9 billion on capital improvement projects company-wide.
Meanwhile Amtrak, which was created by Congress in 1970 to take over passenger rail service operated at a loss by 20 private rail companies, continues to operate in the red. A federally-chartered corporation with the federal government as majority stockholder, Amtrak only recovers 76 percent of its operating costs through ticket sales.
Amtrak received a $1.4 billion federal subsidy this year and needs congressional reauthorization to continue operations past September 2013. The House passed an appropriations bill for fiscal year with $1.8 billion, about $400 million more than this year’s but less than the $2.3 billion in President Obama’s budget. About a third of this year’s budget went to operations, and the rest went to capital and debt service.