MINNEAPOLIS — A passenger train advocacy group and North Dakota's U.S. senators are fighting to try to keep Amtrak's Empire Builder on a daily schedule.
Members of All Aboard Minnesota and Wisconsin, nonprofit organizations, said the plan is to cut daily service down to three times a week unless bailout funding of $5 billion is fed into the nationwide system.
Sens. John Hoeven and Kevin Cramer, both Republicans who advocated for the Empire Builder to keep running, didn't respond when asked whether they would support the bailout.
Brian Nelson, who heads the Minnesota All Aboard group, said revenues for Amtrak are predicted to be down 50% in fiscal year 2021 that starts Oct. 1 compared to before the pandemic.
Thus, his organization in a virtual meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 15, said they are urging supporters to contact senators, House members and others and urge them to support keeping the Empire Builder and other trains rolling on normal schedules.
The pandemic at first cut Empire Builder's passenger numbers by 95%. Ticket sales have been increasing, although the latest available ridership numbers from July still show a huge decline from about 20,000 passengers compared to 51,000 a year ago.
The Empire Builder runs from Chicago to Seattle, with tracks from North Dakota to Washington state running near the Canadian border.
As it sails through eastern and northern North Dakota in the middle of the night and early morning hours, the train has a scheduled arrival and departure time of about 3 a.m. daily at Fargo's downtown station, open from midnight to 7:30 a.m. In the 2019 fiscal year, Amtrak said it had $1.7 million in revenue at its Fargo station with 18,556 passengers.
Under the new plan starting Oct. 19, the Empire Builder would be westbound on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays and eastbound on Tuesdays, Thursday and Saturdays.
Nelson said cutting the network of 10 long-distance routes nationwide would be an "unwise business decision" as it provides as much as 45% of the revenue for the entire Amtrak operation, but incurs only 21% of expenses.
The long-distance trains provide an annual $4.7 billion economic benefit to states where they operate, while reducing routes would only save $213 million, he said.
It's not the first time Amtrak cuts or reductions have been made or proposed.
Nona Hill, who heads the Wisconsin All Aboard group, said similar route reductions in 1995 resulted in a 50% revenue reduction, but only 10% in expense savings.
Nelson said previous Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson once said, "We don't want to run trains in the middle of nowhere where nobody lives."
"There are a lot of people that depend on the service, though," Nelson said.
Passengers include families, college students, people who can't fly and those in smaller towns in northern North Dakota and Montana where it's the only form of public transportation.
Many rural communities also rely on the train's package delivery service, which former president of the National Association of Passengers Ross Capon said has basically ended already as no packages are being accepted with the Oct. 1 end date nearing.
Reduction in routes would also cause several connection problems across the long-distance grid, as Capon said it could result in two-day layovers in Chicago for some routes.
Cramer and Hoeven said they have been fighting to keep the service, but their offices didn't respond about the bailout funding Amtrak CEO William Flynn said is needed to keep daily long-distance routes.
Cramer's office on Wednesday provided a letter sent to Flynn by a bipartisan group of senators this summer that said service reduction would not only result in layoffs but "eliminate thousands of points of connection ... and irrevocably hurt hundreds of communities and small towns already devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic."
Hoeven, who also signed the letter, said in a statement Wednesday that they have worked hard to support Amtrak's operations. He said the service was given $1 billion as part of the CARES Act in addition to $1.3 billion for long-distance trains through the annual appropriations process.
He said they "continue working to maintain North Dakotans' access to this important service."