State of U.S. Passenger Rail – Idaho

The boundary between Idaho and Wyoming is defined by the meridian 111° 3′ W longitude. If the 38th Congress, when it created the Montana Territory out of Idaho in 1864, had continued this boundary northward, Idaho today would have nine train stations. Instead, Congress placed the Idaho/Montana boundary sharply to the west, along the Continental Divide and the Bitterroot Mountain Range. As a result, Amtrak’s Empire Builder traverses Idaho at the state’s narrowest point, the northern tip of the panhandle, leaving Idaho with just a single station, Sandpoint, up in Bonner County. (Montana, as we’ll see, ended up with 12 stations out of the bargain.)

Sandpoint is a stop on the Empire Builder, an overnight long-distance train that travels 1,879 miles from Chicago to Spokane, Wash., where it splits into two smaller trains that continue to Seattle and Portland, Ore.

Idaho’s Amtrak ridership, which is to say passengers to or from Sandpoint, surged 92% from 2003 to 2014. Let’s take a look at the graph.

From 2003 to 2011, the station averaged 5,488 passengers per year. Then in 2012, the ridership surged 66.4%, to 8,815, from 5,296 the previous year. And since then, the station has been averaging 8,833 passengers pear year. What accounts for the big jump? It is a mystery to me. Sandpoint is a tourist destination, and it could be that a new resort opened in town. Or it could be that Amtrak adjusted the schedule of the Empire Builder to make arrivals or departures at Sandpoint more convenient. Or it could be something else.

Now let’s look at monthly ridership on the train that serves Sandpoint twice a day (once in each direction): the Empire Builder.

Average monthly ridership grew steadily from 2003 until November 2008, rising 27% over the time period to a peak of 46,718. Passenger volume then essentially held steady until August 2013, with a one-month exception that accounts for the dip in the average that began in June 2011 and stayed in the average through May 2012. That was a big service disruption in June 2011 when severe floods closed the tracks in North Dakota and forced Amtrak to replace trains along part of the route with bus service. That month’s ridership, 23,721, remains the lowest month between 2003 and 2014. It was down 53% compared to June 2010’s ridership of 50,795, or down 54% compared to June 2012’s ridership of 51,111.

Since August 2013, ridership has been on the decline, to the point that it is now exactly back where it was in 2003-2004 before the ridership increases began. The decline is being caused by the huge oil shale boom underway in North Dakota, which has resulted in a surge in the traffic of freight trains hauling oil tank cars. All of the freight train traffic has resulted in delays to the Empire Builder that has caused people to find alternate forms of travel. While I’m all for American energy independence, hopefully BNSF will be able to increase track capacity through North Dakota to accommodate all of the new freight trains and let the Empire Builder get back on schedule. My wife and I have ridden the Empire Builder twice, from Chicago to Seattle in July 2007, and from Chicago to Portland in August 2014. It is an amazingly great experience.

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