RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Amtrak costs the federal government over $400 million dollars every year. In fact, critics often cite the train service as an example of government waste. Now the oil boom in North Dakota and Montana has led to a dramatic rise in ridership there. Nice, except the Empire Builder Line is still not making any money. It's today's bottom line in business. Montana Public Radio's Dan Boyce took a ride.
(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN ENGINE)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: All aboard.
DAN BOYCE, BYLINE: In the North Central Montana town of Shelby, the Amtrak station has an almost European flair compared with its open, rural surroundings. Smartly dressed train attendants are taking tickets on the platform. 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, the epicenter of what's called the Bakken Oil Boom. OK. To find people going to Williston I need to look for the letters WTN written on the card on the luggage rack above people's seats. So starting at my seat...
One right ahead of me - there's one - two seats behind me, and really throughout coach seating.
JEFF PORT: I live in Clarkston, Washington.
BOYCE: Jeff Port is building an RV park south of Williston to house oil field workers. He's been driving and flying between Washington and North Dakota, sometimes twice a week.
PORT: A buddy of mine goes, hey, man you can take an Amtrak for $106 bucks, and I'd been flying for sometimes up to $1000.
BOYCE: And this, right here, this is his first time on a train, ever.
PORT: I'm 50 years old and, like, I was doing cartwheels yesterday, thinking I'm going to ride a train for the first time.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We have five spots still open for the chicken dinners. Once they're gone they will be gone.
BOYCE: Amtrak estimates ridership to the Williston, North Dakota station has quadrupled in the last decade. Those commuting to work and looking for work - not just oil workers - their families too.
AMANDA ZDANNIS: I don't work in the oil fields, my husband does.
BOYCE: Amanda Zdannis moved from New York City to the remote Eastern Montana town of Sidney a year ago. She uses the train to get to a bigger city.
ZDANNIS: I take my daughter, my four-year-old out to Kalispell. First it was a weekly basis.
BOYCE: She goes to Kalispell because it's a mountain resort town outside of Glacier National Park, and it's on the Amtrak route.
ZDANNIS: Just for some culture and normalcy, I guess.
BOYCE: Zdannis says it's tough living around the male-dominated roughneck culture surrounding the Bakken Boom. And she's used to hopping on public transportation to get where she wants to go. Where Zdannis is from on the East Coast, some of the Amtrak lines pay for themselves. She describes the lack of transportation options out here to be a bit of a culture shock.
ZDANNIS: It's kind of unbelievable.
BOYCE: Is the Empire Builder Line profitable?
MARC MAGLIARI: No.
BOYCE: Regional Amtrak Media Relations Manager, Marc Magliari.
MAGLIARI: It is among our better performing routes, financially, but it is not paying for its costs of both operations and capitol.
BOYCE: Magliari says that's not necessarily the point - Amtrak is a public service.
STEVEN MCDUFFIE: The new Amtrak slogan should be: Well, you're paying for it anyway. So, you know, that's the way I look at it.
BOYCE: Washington state resident Steven McDuffie travels through Montana to get to the Bakken too. Politically he's libertarian. He's pretty much against the idea of government supported transportation. But, he's been riding the Empire Builder every two weeks since February. And some of the stereotypes about riding Amtrak, he says they hold up.
MCDUFFIE: This is the first time that the train left Edmonds, Washington on time and it's the first time where we're actually scheduled to get into Williston on time since I've been taking the train.
BOYCE: Overall though, he says his gripes are pretty minor. And, again, it's cheap.
MCDUFFIE: I know this is ironic because I'm - philosophically I'm opposed to public transportation, but yet here I am having a pretty good time on the Amtrak train.
BOYCE: And since there's no sign of the Bakken oil boom slowing down for decades, Amtrak can probably count on a lot more people realizing the train is the best way to get there. For NPR News, I'm Dan Boyce in Helena, Montana.
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