At Amtrak's Olympia station, volunteer attendants have served the needs of thousands of rail travelers faithfully since the station, built with volunteer labor, opened in 1993. Amtrak has cooperated — up to a point.
Open the Amtrak timetable, however, and the station directory will tell you that Centennial Station, the national rail provider's Olympia-Lacey stop, is unstaffed and unattended — like most of Amtrak's hundreds of stations. Get off a train at the station and you'll find out Amtrak isn't giving you the straight story.
You'll be greeted by volunteers who will help carry your baggage, assist you to a bus, tell you where the restrooms are, or answer questions about your next Amtrak trip.
What's more, volunteers built the station house, which opened in 1993, with donated money and material. If ever there was an example of people joining together to create transportation infrastructure, this is it.
Twenty-five years ago, Amtrak patrons traveling to or from the capital city — which the tracks bypass — had to contend with a station designated as East Olympia. In a recent interview, Lloyd Flem, Olympia resident and dean of Washington state's passenger rail activists, recalled the station as “a little three-sided shack. ... The potholes in the parking lot would sometimes be a foot deep — no restrooms, no nothing. It would have made maybe a half-way decent farm stand.”
The station, adjacent to a gated road crossing, was also very dangerous. “There were several people killed at East Olympia, in several accidents,” said Bob Bregent, a locomotive engineer from Olympia who managed Centennial Station's construction. “People would go around the down gate and they'd hit a freight coming on the other main track. They thought they only had to circumvent the passenger train stopped next to the crossing.”
“Amtrak wouldn't let women who were alone off there in the dark,” Olympia's George Barner told Crosscut. “They'd drop them off in Centralia or Tacoma instead.” Today a Port of Olympia commissioner, Barner was a Thurston County commissioner in the 1980s and played a key role in getting the new station built.
One incident provoked a passenger to speak out, helping bring about action. Late one night in 1986, Amtrak's Los Angeles-Seattle Coast Starlight train, running way behind schedule, dropped off a wheelchair-bound man at the East Olympia shack. No one was around, and the often-vandalized pay phone apparently wasn't working. The man spent the entire night at the station, helpless. When he finally reached his destination, he penned a letter to the Olympia newspaper and the Thurston County commissioners, complaining of the station's non-facilities. Barner decided to take action, convening a meeting that led to the founding of the nonprofit Amtrak Depot Committee.
The committee garnered plenty of local publicity, and donations for a proper station facility began flowing in. The name Centennial was chosen to commemorate the state's then-upcoming 1989 centennial — although the station's opening ultimately missed that anniversary by four years.
Thurston County donated a highway maintenance depot, two miles northeast along the Burlington Northern tracks from East Olympia, and a local farmer contributed some adjacent land, giving the station a site of some five acres. Some 2,500 paving bricks were sold at $35 to $50 apiece, while marble plaques were minted for larger, business donors. The local contractors' trade association donated time and material. An architect contributed drawings. Bregent would show up with half a dozen volunteer nail-pounders on Saturdays and Sundays.
The station and adjoining park-and-ride cost, depending on the accounting one consults, between $600,000 and $1 million, exclusive of all the donated labor and materials. The federal government — meaning Amtrak — didn't put in a dime. In comparions, an Amtrak station in Stanwood, minimal in design and opened in 2009, cost roughly $5 million dollars, all of it public money. The budget for the new Sounder-Amtrak station in Tukwila is $18 million.
While the volunteers lent the effort sweat and soul, and the railroad – today the Burlington Northern Santa Fe – cooperated, there was no shortage of red tape for Olympia's movers and shakers to wade through. Some in the public sector, meanwhile, were openly skeptical. In a 2011 interview, Bregent recalled asking a Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) official for help with the effort. The functionary, then the only WSDOT employee working on rail issues, “literally laughed in my face and said ‘Nobody rides the train anymore. We’re not giving you one red penny.’”
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