Daily Empire Builder service returns next week

Montana’s only Amtrak line has seen reduced frequency since January

By: - May 16, 2022 8:18 pm

The Empire Builder of Amtrak in Shelby, Montana. (Photo courtesy of Prasenberg via Wikimedia Commons).

Daily service on the Empire Builder, the only Amtrak line that traverses Montana, will resume May 23, the federally funded passenger rail service announced last week.

The rail agency said that the hiring of an additional 1,500 employees and increased demand for travel has enabled the restoration of daily service to four long distance lines including the Empire Builder, which connects Chicago to the Pacific Northwest through Havre, Whitefish and other towns in Montana’s northern tier. Amtrak reduced — or paused entirely — trips on a number of long-distance lines in January, citing a pandemic-driven workforce shortage. The Empire Builder has been running five days a week since.

“Thanks to our dedicated existing employees and newly-hired staff, we are thrilled to expand our scheduled service just in time to meet customers’ rising demand for travel this summer,” Amtrak CEO Stephen Gardner said in a statement last week.

Amtrak had initially said that daily service would return to several long-distance lines by late March, though it would go on to extend that deadline to May.

“This announcement is long overdue, and it’s great news for folks living on the Hi-Line who depend on daily Amtrak service to support our state’s rural economies and to stay connected to family and friends,” U.S. Senator Jon Tester, a Democrat from Montana, said in a statement following the announcement.

Tester in 2020 worked to include funding in federal COVID-19 relief legislation to reverse previous service cuts to the Empire Builder. He’s also advocated for a federal study examining the possibility of restoring service to what was once Amtrak’s second line through Montana, the North Coast Hiawatha, which has been defunct since 1979.

The Empire Builder made headlines for separate reasons last year, when the train derailed near Joplin, Montana, killing three and injuring dozens. The National Transportation Safety Board issued preliminary findings last October but has yet to declare a cause. Multiple lawsuits have since emerged accusing Amtrak and BNSF, which owns the track, of negligence, allegations the companies have denied.

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Arren Kimbel-Sannit
Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Arren Kimbel-Sannit is an Arizona-bred journalist who has covered politics, policy and power building at every level of government. Before getting his dose of northern exposure, Arren worked as a reporter in all manner of Arizona newsrooms, for the Dallas Morning News and for POLITICO in Washington, D.C. He has a special interest in how land-use decisions affect working-class people, which he displayed through reporting on the epidemic of pedestrian deaths in the U.S. for the Los Angeles Times and PBS Newshour. He's also covered housing, agriculture, the Trump presidency and more.