Havre Daily News: The facts on Empire Builder ridership

Rebuttal to Havre Daily News article of November 25

In an article about ridership on Amtrak’s Empire Builder passenger train featured in the Nov. 25 edition of the Havre Daily News, I am quoted as suggesting that the peak ridership for the train at 554,000 in 2008 was due to Amtrak providing enhanced equipment, amenities and promotions of the train. That 2008 ridership (actually 554,266) was up from 437,191 in 2004. The equipment, service and marketing enhancements commenced in 2005.

The same article cites Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari trying to explain away the increase in ridership (to its peak in 2008) as “when the Bakken oil boom was happening” and “comparing then to now is not valid.”

Mr. Magliari knows not of what he speaks.

The Bakken Oil Boom was only in its infancy in 2008, and did not peak until the years 2012 and 2013. Most of the increase in ridership due to the Bakken phenomenon was centered on two stations in North Dakota: Williston and Stanley. During the 2008 ridership apex, patronage at these stations were 23,619 and 3,694 respectively, peaking in 2012 to 54,324 (Williston) and 10,234 (Stanley), respectively. In 2018, ridership had fallen to 29,012 and 4,297, respectively.

While 2012 and 2013 were indeed high-ridership years for the Empire Builder (almost approaching that of 2008), the salient point is that the 2008 peak was clearly a result of the enhancements Amtrak made to its service, and had little to do with the very beginnings of what would become the “Bakken Boom.” Since 2008 along the Empire Builder route, Amtrak equipment has deteriorated, onboard amenities have been cut, marketing of the service is virtually non-existent and Amtrak has eliminated station staffing at Columbus, Wisconsin, Winona, Minnesota, Grand Forks, North Dakota, Rugby, North Dakota, Wolf Point, Havre and Shelby.

The uproar following the closing of the Amtrak ticket offices in Havre and Shelby has resulted in more spin from this Amtrak spokesman than a successful visit from the Maytag Repairman. This latest misstatement is more of the same. Instead of trying to explain away Amtrak’s “death-by-a-thousand-cuts” course it has planned for the Empire Builder, just once it would be encouraging to hear what can be done to enhance the customer experience, boost ridership — and make the train truly “Incomparable” as it was touted in Great Northern Railway days. Indeed, the namesake train for James J. Hill — the original Empire Builder — should be nothing but.


Mark Meyer

Rail Passenger Association Representative-at-Large