Passenger rail service is important, but overstated in recent guest opinion

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Guest Opinion By Mark Meyer
Thursday, January 13, 2022
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A guest opinion in the Glendive Ranger Review Dec. 19, 2021 by Jason Stuart, Vice Chairman of the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority (BSPRA) and Executive Director of the Dawson County Economic Development Council (DCEDC) stated, referencing efforts to bring back passenger train service through Glendive: “We firmly believe that we can say without hyperbole that this is the most important economic development effort in Glendive/Dawson County in at least the last 50 years, and the DCEDC is leading in that effort. The restoration of passenger rail service will be a major economic boon to our community, providing increased economic activity for our hotels, retail stores, restaurants and tourism sites. It will help create new opportunities for new businesses to open and flourish. It will create new jobs for ticket agents, baggage handlers, depot staff and other support services. It may even present an opportunity to put the now decommissioned locomotive repair shop back in operation. And it will improve the quality of life for our community, providing our residents with another option for travel that is safe, weatherproof, reliable and affordable.”

The most important economic development effort in Glendive in the last half a century? I think the benefits he cites are quite overstated all the while seeming to discount real accomplishments in the past five decades. “Effort” is a subjective word, of course, but significant lobbying brought the Glendive Detention Center (with 140 beds, one of the largest prisons in Montana) as well as Eastern Montana Veteran’s Home (an 80-bed facility, rather large by Montana standards) to Glendive, both plum projects desired by other communities in Eastern Montana at the time. Also, it would seem unlikely that the city and its business community would not have had at least some input on other major impacts to the local economy in the past 50 years, such as establishment of the local UPS distribution center, the boom in coal train traffic during the 1970s and 1980s (Glendive was the railroad’s Yellowstone division headquarters), the building of the only shuttle grain train facility along nearly 300 miles of I-94 (between Boyle, ND and Pompeys Pillar), and the expansion of numerous businesses during the Bakken Boom – everything from facilities to accommodate pipe and cement to hotels. Yes, most small towns in America are struggling, but Glendive has scored some real successes in the past 50 years.

In October 2021, the BSPRA released the North Coast Hiawatha Restoration Study, which included ridership figures for each county with a stop or stops where the train would serve. The study predicted very anemic ridership in Montana and North Dakota, with the vast majority of use being in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Washington. The study projected the Glendive stop would produce 1,745 origin trips annually; Assuming an equal number of terminating (detraining) passengers annually would double that number to 3,490 trips per year. That’s just under 10 passengers per day, or about 5 per train (two trains per day, one each way). Given that no Amtrak station with such scant ridership is staffed anywhere with “ticket agents” or “baggage handlers,” it’s exceptionally unlikely that the Glendive station would be a singular anomaly. Currently, the minimum number of passengers Amtrak deems necessary to warrant staffing is much higher, and cities like Erie, PA (population 95,000, handling 42 passengers daily) and Elkhart, IN (population 54,000, handling 57 passengers daily) have no Amtrak staff (only a caretaker to open the waiting area, and perform janitorial duties). Specifically, the Investment in Infrastructure and Jobs Act which became law in late 2021 (the legislation that the BSPRA is hoping will fund the revived passenger train in Southern Montana) dictates Amtrak must staff stations that average at least 40 passengers per day. According to the study commissioned and endorsed by the BSPRA, the only two stations along a revived North Coast Hiawatha route in Montana where ridership meets that criterion are Billings and Helena. In reality, any station staffing for a passenger train in Glendive would likely consist only of a caretaker as in the case of Erie or Elkhart, or closer to home, like Wolf Point or Stanley (both of which had pre-Covid ridership higher than is projected at Glendive).

Even more curious is the suggestion of revived rail passenger service being the impetus for reopening the BNSF Glendive mechanical facility (closed in July, 2020). Back when passenger trains were operated by the Northern Pacific and Burlington Northern Railways in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, and even the early days of the North Coast Hiawatha in the 1970s, locomotive power on passenger trains between Chicago or St. Paul and Seattle were changed at Livingston, not Glendive. Today, Amtrak operates three long-distance trains between Chicago and the West Coast. In all cases (barring service interruptions), the locomotive power operates from origin to destination, and returns to Chicago either the same day or next day, without any modification at intermediate locations. Like the claim about staffing a Glendive station with ticket agents and baggage handlers, reviving the Glendive mechanical facility because of restored rail passenger service would seem to be an unlikely Glendive-only anomaly based on current operations. Beyond that, mechanical facilities are expensive to maintain (staffing, parts, equipment, infrastructure, taxes, security) and are best justified by a high volume of usage, which could not be the case even if the proposed one-train-per-day-each-way scenario becomes reality. Amtrak has full-service mechanical facilities in place at Chicago and Seattle, with similar facilities – should the need arise – by host railroads at Minneapolis and Livingston along the proposed route.

As to the claim for revived passenger train service providing increased economic activity at tourist sites, it should be noted that the North Coast Hiawatha Restoration Study ignores tourism (and many other factors) in any of its ridership projections: It’s simply a number generated by the population of the county, multiplied by a constant. In Glendive’s case, it’s 20.3% (the multiplier for counties in a specified population range) of the Dawson County population (8,613) or 1,745. It’s the same multiplier used at more well-known tourist destinations along the route, such as Wisconsin Dells, Medora, Livingston, and Helena. Personally, I believe such a unitary multiplier shortchanges locations like Glendive, but the BSPRA stands behind the study “unequivocally,” as stated in a December 5, 2021 Ranger-Review Guest Editorial by the Chairman of the BSPRA.

At least the last part of Mr. Stuart’s treatise is correct. Passenger trains do offer improved quality of life for a community and a safe, weather-proof, reliable and affordable travel option. That should be the focus, not conjecture to the point of spin.

Mark Meyer is a native Montanan. He has been a passenger train advocate for over 50 years and worked for Burlington Northern and BNSF for over 40 years. He can be reached at vermontanan@aol.com.

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