Riding the train to work used to be a big-city, East Coast deal.

Now it’s the commuting choice of hundreds of oil workers along the Hi-Line of Montana heading to high-paying jobs in the Bakken oil fields.

“The people who ride the Empire Builder to work the Bakken come from as far west as Spokane and as far East as Minneapolis,” said retired Amtrak engineer Chuck McMillan of Helena, who keeps close tabs on trains crossing Montana.

Ridership on Amtrak’s famed Empire Builder into and out of Williston, N.D., the epicenter of the boom, increased from 29,920 in 2011 to 54,324 last year. That’s a jump of of 82 percent.

However, those numbers aren’t clear comparisons because severe flooding in 2011, especially in Minot and Devils Lake, N.D., stopped the Empire Builder for days at a time, cutting deeply into passenger counts.

A trio of train stations across the northern rail line from Minneapolis to Seattle are showing the fastest growth rate of all Amtrak routes, said spokesman Marc Magliari of Chicago.

“If you look at all those stations from all those states, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho and Washington and Oregon, you’ll certainly see that Williston, Stanley and Minot are in the Top 10 of all the stations on the route,” he said.

Over the past two years, Amtrak had to expand the waiting room at the Williston, N.D., depot and make improvements in other Bakken boom towns.

“This shows the essential nature of Amtrak service in many parts of the country, not just in the northeast, but here in the Central Plains,” Magliari said.

With full trains, especially during summer tourism months, rail passengers need to show up early, just like they do for airplane flights.

“We’ve been trying to educate the ridership that you can’t show up at the last minute and expect to check a bag,” he said.

On June 18, oil field worker Sam Bellah hopped onto the Empire Builder in Williston, N.D., heading home to Priest Lake, Idaho.

The same day Carlino Broncho was ready to board Amtrak to make his first trip home in three months to the Rocky Boy Reservation of Montana. New to the oil fields, Broncho said the hours are long and the work difficult, but the pay has made him possibly one of the best compensated people on the reservation.

During the last two regional oil booms in the 1970s, schedules were different and oil field workers needed to live close to their jobs. Today, employees often work several weeks on with several weeks off, a schedule that permits them to commute from homes hundreds of miles away.

Riding the rails also spares workers from battling ever busier highways, with their streams of oil field semis rolling by.

In most industries, strong demand would lead to more service.

But the federally subsidized Amtrak service can’t just buy more Pullman cars because it doesn’t have the funds, Magliari said.

Congress failed to pass an Amtrak budget for the latest federal fiscal year. So the Empire Builder is pulling the same number of cars this summer as last summer.

“Often, because we sell out, passengers in peak seasons like the summer have to be flexible on their travel days,” Magliari said.

Under the current Amtrak system, individual states are responsible for lobbying for and funding additional rail service on short runs of 750 miles or less, he said.

Montana doesn’t receive direct federal funding, so no pool of money exists to improve rail service, according to the Department of Transportation.

 


Comments

05/23/2016 6:05am

They too deserve the right to use public transport but if they did use cvmonsters they might have had ended up with a better job.

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