Ridership is picking up on Montana’s only Amtrak rail service.
Ticket sales on the Empire Builder line have gone up steadily over the last few years.
It’s another economic impact of the Bakken oil boom.
At the boarding platform at the Shelby Amtrak station, smartly dressed train attendants are taking tickets and passengers are pulling luggage onto a shining silver two-story superliner.
The Empire Builder is heading East, eventually to Chicago, though not before stopping in Williston, North Dakota.
To find people going to Williston, I need to look for the letters WTN in the card on the luggage rack above people’s seats. I look to the seat right across from mine and see one. There’s one right ahead of me, two seats behind me, and dotted through the rest of this upper-deck coach seating.
Clarkston, Washington resident Jeff Port is building an RV park south of Williston. He’s been driving and flying back and forth sometimes twice a week.
“A buddy of mine goes ‘you know man you can take an Amtrak for $106 bucks, and I’d been flying for sometimes up to $1000 dollars,” he said.
This, right here, is his first ride on a train–ever.
“I’m 50 years old and like I was doing cartwheels yesterday thinking I’m gonna ride a train for the first time,” Port said.
He’s loving this, taking a nap and having some drinks.
“I’m jumpin up and down inside right now talking to you about how cool this train is, seriously,” he laughed.
Lead Service Attendant Ken Homko is prepping down in the café car for his busiest stop of the day, comin’ up soon.
“We get these chickens on from Havre,” he said. “It’s a local restaurant in Havre, they bring em fresh to the train.”
Homko has been working the Empire Builder on and off for three years now. He’s noticed a big influx of people heading to the Bakken, from both East and West.
In fact, Amtrak estimates ridership to the Williston station has quadrupled in the last decade. Those commuting to work and looking for work.
“The riders coming from the oil field, (are they a) rowdy group?” I asked Kumho.
Homko’s very careful in his word choice, saying they can get a bit excited.
“Where the trains running late, where they may be sitting in an establishment waiting for the train, they might be a little more excited about getting on the train, especially on a Friday or saturday night,” he said, also making sure to bring up \it’s not just oil workers, it’s families too.
“I don’t work in the oil fields, my husband does,” said Amanda Zdanis. She moved to Sidney, Montana from New York a year ago.
“I take my daughter out to Kalispell. First it was a weekly basis,” she said. Now it’s more of a monthly basis, but she chose the Kalispell-Whitefish area because it’s on the Amtrak route. “For some culture and some normalcy, I guess.”
She describes living around the Bakken boom to be considerable culture shock. She’s used to hopping on the train—coming from a place where public transportation is a part of everyday life. She’s surprised to see so little of it here.
“It’s kind of unbelievable,” she said. But where Zdanis is from, some of the Amtrak lines pay for themselves.
Regional Amtrak Media Relations Manager Marc Magliari says the Empire Builder does not turn a profit.
“It is among our better performing routes nationally, but it is not paying for its costs of both operations and capitol,” Magliari said.
Magliari says that’s not necessarily the point—it’s a public service. One that costs the federal government $400 to $500 million dollars every year.
“The new Amtrak slogan should be ‘well, you’re paying for it anyway,’ that’s the way I look at it,” said Edmonds, Washington resident Steven McDuffie, who works for a third party company that deals with drilling contractors in the Bakken.
Politically—he’s libertarian. He’s pretty much against the idea of government supported transportation, believing free market solutions bring prices down and quality up. He’s been riding the Empire Builder every two weeks since February. Some of the stereotypes about riding Amtrak, he says they hold up.
“This is the first time the train left Edmonds, Washington on time and the first time where we’re scheduled to get into Williston on time since I’ve been taking the train,” he said.
Overall though, he says his gripes are pretty minor. And, again, it’s cheap.
“I know this is ironic, because philosophically I’m opposed to public transportation but yet here I am having a pretty good time on the Amtrak train,” he said.”A convert, nah I wouldn’t say. Pleasantly surprised that it’s not as bad as I heard, yeah, that’s pretty fair.”
And with that he went back to reading his Kindle, his silver superliner cutting across the sparse Montana Hi-line toward the station labeled WTN.