If train goes, does Main Street as well?

Rural states like Montana are leading the charge to save Amtrak's long-distance routes.

On days when Gerald Smith feels isolated, when the big open expanse of the high plains seems as if it's swallowing him up, he often wanders to a spot on his cattle ranch and waves to passing Amtrak trains ferrying travelers between Chicago and Seattle.

If only for a moment, he says, the presence of the railroad gives him solace, reminding him – just as it reminded his ancestors years ago in tiny Galata – that the tracks cutting through his pasture offer a daily connection to the rest of the world.

In outposts spread across seven northern states where Amtrak's Empire Builder once-daily connects Chicago to Seattle and Portland, Ore., rural folk people look upon their still-functioning depots as lifelines. But Empire Builder is also a significant money loser, among one of 18 routes Amtrak says are at high risk of cancellation should federal funding not increase substantially this year.

As lawmakers in faraway Washington, D.C. are faced with difficult choices after Amtrak's record $1.1 billion loss last year, people like Mr. Smith firmly believe that if passenger rail service is terminated, this corner of the West will diminish.

That's why a vocal group of rural farmers and ranchers, business owners, historians, labor unionists, and politicians have joined Smith in a grassroots campaign called Save Amtrak. Save Amtrak was originally founded in the mid-1990s to increase rural service on Empire Builder's passenger route.

Now the grassroots, citizen-funded organization must fight to save the train. The group has several powerful allies in the halls of Congress.

"Ending of the Empire Builder would be the death knell for many a business in Montana and even some towns," says Sen. Conrad Burns, (R) of Montana, who is among a bipartisan delegation of westerners fighting on Capitol Hill for continuation of Amtrak's money-losing long-haul routes. "I won't stand by and let that happen. At least for this next year, we should be able to keep the line alive. After that, some hard decisions need to be made."

Hi-Line towns on the wire

The dependence of rural Americans on Amtrak is especially heartfelt along Montana's "Hi-Line" region where 12 small rail stops dot the remote northern flank of the state.

"This Amtrak route crosses parts of the country where there just isn't any transportation alternative for rural people. They don't have reliable bus or air service. They have trains. That's it," says Dick Turner, who oversees intermodal systems for the Montana Department of Transportation.

Inhabitants of the Hi-Line use Empire Builder much the same way Easterners use commuter trains. They catch a ride to make doctor's appointments in cities hundreds of miles away. Small-town florists rely on the train to deliver shipments of fresh flowers. The elderly who can no longer drive turn to it for essential travel. And funeral parlors enlist Amtrak's assistance to help families ship the remains of loved ones to their final resting places.

The line bridges Old West lifestyles with the ever-changing New West. Low-income native American college students, for example, hop on Empire Builder to head to universities in the fall. Meanwhile, tribal members who spend their summers fighting wildfires for the government use it to get to and from home on the reservation. And downhill skiers from North Dakota take Empire Builder to the chairlifts in the Rockies.

In many cases, dollars generated from travelers are the only thing offsetting the decline of agriculture – made worse recently by a six-year drought along the Hi-Line that shows no sign of letting up.

In 2001, the Empire Builder served 398,000 passengers, a relatively small number compared to ridership volumes along the Atlantic seaboard, but significant to the economic health of the Hi-Line. Consider the town of Shelby, population 3,000, where 30 families have Amtrak jobs and account for $2.6 million in payroll, Smith says.

In addition, every year 5,000 passengers from Montana and southern Canada board Empire Builder in Shelby. "If you take away the jobs and the passengers, you eliminate the economic trickle-down effect that accounts for a significant portion of the local economy," he notes.

Further west, the mountain town of Whitefish benefits from nearly 50,000 Amtrak passengers, part of an ongoing tradition of tourists, dating back nearly a century, coming to Glacier National Park by train. In Essex, Larry Vielleux, owner of the historic Izaak Walton Inn, says that Amtrak patrons account for 30 percent of his guests. "Are we worried? You better believe it," he says.

Along the former "Lo-Line" route that cut across southern Montana, some sociologists say that the loss of passenger rail service three decades ago affected the viability of downtown commercial centers and ultimately helped steer businesses to strip malls. Towns didn't die, but they did lose their character, they say. A slogan used by Northern Pacific Railway, "Main Street of the Northwest," turned out to be truth in advertising.

Big city vs. big sky country

While the health of small-town Montana may seem like a parochial interest to outsiders, Montana DOT's Turner sees long-distance rail as an investment in national unity. "If we are destined to have rail and Interstates and commercial air service constrained only to urban areas, then we won't have a true national transportation system."

But some budget hawks and urban lawmakers on Capitol Hill, including Sen. John McCain, (R) of Arizona, see things differently. They are calling for an end to Amtrak's public subsidies, which have totaled $25 billion since the quasi-national rail was created in 1970. They say it's time the company competes on its own in the private sector.

While Amtrak's urban routes with high passenger volumes in the Northeast are economically viable, the overland routes, which are used by fewer travelers and rural local passengers, are not self-sufficient. According to the Amtrak Reform Council, an oversight body created by Congress in 1997, Empire Builder lost $114.14 million in 2001. That's $45.40 per passenger.

Smith and other defenders of Amtrak counter that after September 11, the federal government helped prop up private airlines with a $15 billion relief package to keep them in business.

And in this debate, where "subsidy" and "investment" are opposite perspectives on the same spending, Save Amtrak has the sympathy of senators that wield power disproportionate to their small number of constituents. Montana has the same number of votes in the Senate as population goliaths New York and California. And the region's congressional delegation is well placed on major committees that control budgetary pursestrings.

A key signal, Turner says, is what kind of national passenger rail policy is advanced from the White House. President Bush was supposed to unveil his plan in March, but it has been delayed. An announcement is expected any day.

Strolling across his ranch, as the conductor of the Empire Builder honks him a friendly salutation, Smith thinks about the past and the future.

"It's hard to imagine the West without passenger rail," he says. "This place wouldn't be the same."

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