Who’s Minding the Store? Nobody.
It does appear that the handwriting is on the railway station walls. For almost two years now, Amtrak has not been replacing station agents when they retire. In other cases, station agents are transferred, leaving their former station without any staff.
The most recent of these is the station at Columbus, Wisconsin, where an average of about a dozen people a day board the Empire Builder. April 30th will be the last day for Rod Musel, the station agent there. He’s being transferred to the Amtrak station in Milwaukee.
The thing is—and why are we not surprised?—it’s the long-distance trains that are being hit hardest. On May 1st, Rod Musel’s first day at work in Milwaukee, 24 of the 39 stations on the Empire Builder’s route will be unmanned. That’s almost two-thirds. Amtrak has justified this policy by noting that most people are now buying their tickets on the internet and, for the rest, there are ticket vending machines in the stations without staffs.
That is indeed true, but NARP, as the advocate for rail passengers, has objected to this policy from the get-go because many passengers arrive at the station with questions and don’t know what number to call. And what about the passenger who arrives at an unmanned station with a large trunk that will have to go into the baggage car? Or a disabled passenger who needs help boarding the train? Those issues now fall to the conductors, but their job is to oversee the operation of the train, not load baggage. The frequent result is frustrated, confused passengers and 60-second stops that turn into five-minute stops.
Of course everyone at Amtrak from Wick Moorman on down knows that in an ideal world every station has an Amtrak employee to sell tickets, answer questions, handle checked baggage, assist elderly or disabled passengers on and off the train, and deal with whatever circumstances need his or her attention. A caretaker to open the building 30 minutes before the train is due? Well, that’s no answer.
Republicans in Congress have demanded that Amtrak take whatever steps may be necessary to achieve break-even. And so, in addition to all the other cost-cutting that’s going on, the station agents are disappearing. The current best estimate is that more than 200 of Amtrak’s roughly 500 stations around the country now have no station agent.
There is a solution, however. It’s not ideal and a whole different set of problems come with it, but it appears to be a viable alternative. More about that in the coming weeks.