empire builder

A Halliburton worker waits for the Empire Builder to begin boarding in Williston in this 2015 file photo. The service carried many oilfield workers during the boom, but, as housing has come online, demand for that has dropped. Coronavirus, meanwhile, has reduced demand for travel on Amtrak lines by 90 percent, which is prompting the company to reduce service to three times per week through Williston.

Amtrak’s Empire Builder will no longer be making daily runs through Williston and other locations beginning Oct. 1. The service will be reduced to three days per week.

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari told the Williston Herald the company is also reducing its workforce by 20 percent overall, to better match reduced demand amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The company hopes to accomplish most of the reduction with a voluntary incentive package for employees who want to separate. The deadline for that is today.

While an internal memo obtained by CNN had suggested the company might be making additional cuts, Magliari said the company is not planning staff reductions beyond the already announced 20 percent.

Amtrak isn’t going to request more funds from Congress to save the jobs, noting it had already made operational cuts of $500 million and on top of that had requested $1.47 billion in supplemental funding from Congress related to coronavirus expenses. The supplemental request was in addition to the $2.04 billion it had requested earlier in the year from Congress for its annual grant.

Magliari said the workforce cuts are due to the pandemic, which has all but cut off demand for travel on the trains. March and April travel stats are overall 90 percent less than usual for Amtrak lines, Maglieri said.

“There have been some small improvements, but the difference between 7 and 10 percent is still a lot fewer than normal,” he said. “Especially on your train in this season.”

During the boom, Amtrak’s line through Williston, the Empire Builder, carried large numbers of oilfield workers who were on two-week on, two-week off schedules. But as apartments came online and the housing shortage eased, that has changed.

Magliari said it will likely be at least a year before enough demand recovers for Amtrak to restore daily service routes in Williston and its other long-distance locations.

It is a stunning reversal for the company, which, prior to coronavirus, had been expecting to have another record-breaking year.

In 2019, the company set new records for ridership, revenue, and earnings, and a media release at its website said the service could achieve operational break-even in 2020 for the first time in the company’s 49-year history.

Amtrak was then planning billions in capital improvements and fleet updates.

“It is clear that Amtrak faces daunting challenges in Fiscal Year 2021, which will require us to take action to protect our rail network, our critical capital assets, and the livelihoods of our employees,” Amtrak CEO Bill Flynn said in the letter to Congress in May requesting supplemental funds.

Flynn said then he expects ridership to return to about 50 percent in 2021.

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