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.
Well, as I understand it, right now there is a third level of depot service at some stations that is a higher service level than just a ‘caretaker’ but not as high as an on-premises ticket agent.
They now have (I know this with the help of your research) ‘station volunteer hosts’ that, unlike caretakers, are actually at the station when passengers are arriving and departing. They assist passengers with boarding, schedules, and general inquiries.
One I’m talking about is here in Kansas at Dodge City. That station has transitioned from unattended to the use of community volunteer hosts.
Now, I don’t know anything about Columbus, WI but I’m sure there was some reason Amtrak made the decision they did. Maybe station revenue had been trending down. Maybe boardings had been trending down, maybe baggage volume had been trending down, but, again, here in Kansas, we seem to be going the opposite direction from the examples you have been mentioning.
I found out this week, that after several years of having a ticket agent on duty just five days a week at Newton (Wichita), the station will be staffed with a ticket agent seven days a week. that apparently started a few months ago. The ticket agent there told me boardings and revenue were both up in 2016 over 2015.
It’ll be interesting to see how the volunteer approach works in Dodge City. If successful, perhaps as full time agents that are union members retire, that could help Amtrak significantly reduce expenses by replacing them with community volunteers. And that would be a good thing.
You are quite right that recruiting volunteers to provide some services at these “agent-less” stations is being done in a number of areas. There will be much more to report on that in another couple of months.
This may not be a popular idea, but… perhaps converting those quicktrak machines into a teller assist type machine like the ones they have at the Bank of America. Passengers will still be dealing with a live person for ticketing and baggage as well as answering questions. The station caretaker as well as maybe a train attendant would load and unload baggage. As is the case the car attendants job is to still load patrons on the train.