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Amtrak finds it hard to take citizens' help, even when they build a station

A community effort built Olympia's train station and, in the nearly 20 years since, volunteers have met every single train to help passengers. Amtrak is not enitrely impressed: its literature tells travelers that the station is unstaffed.

The railroad station in Olympia

The railroad station in Olympia Loco Steve (Steve Wilson)/Flickr

The Tacoma Amtrak station: Olympia rail supporters say the rail line wanted them to build a station of matching design.

The Tacoma Amtrak station: Olympia rail supporters say the rail line wanted them to build a station of matching design. tracktwentynine (Matt Johnson)/Flickr

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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Comments:

Posted Wed, Feb 22, 4:10 a.m. Inappropriate

Great article Mr. Hall.
A similar effort is starting to gain some traction in the old Northern Pacific rail station, built in 1903, by a local coin shop operator Bill Becht.
Now that White Rock has dropped out of contention for a station serving nearly a million residents south of Vancouver BC, all eyes are on making it easy to cross the border and hop on an Amtrak train to points south. Even the Mayor of Blaine has got the train bug. Here's a link to their website for more information on efforts by All Aboard WA and the Cascadia Center to make that happen. http://www.blainestation.com/
Amtrak, WSDOT and BNSF are pretty low to no key on the subject - so what else is new. Maybe they just need a little coaxing along, like Olympia did?

007

Posted Wed, Feb 22, 8:45 a.m. Inappropriate

I've taken the Cascades train down to Olympia, where my family lives, a number of times. I've also taken it down to Portland. The Olympia station is, by far, the best. It's clean, well lit and its volunteers almost always have a smile on their faces. Can't say the same for Seattle or Portland.

Thanks for the great article.

granite

Posted Wed, Feb 22, 9:09 a.m. Inappropriate

Passenger train service will continue to exist in the US only to the extent that citizens demand it. The big money interests -- private and public -- have no use for it. The folks in Olympia are providing wonderful support but will never receive thanks or acknowledgment from Amtrak itself or the transportation industry.

woofer

Posted Wed, Feb 22, 9:36 a.m. Inappropriate

This story is a great example of how and why "people power" is entirely different from, and far more competent than government power. It brings to mind the ferry system, which will not allow private vessels to use its facilities. A government monopoly is a very hard thing to break.

dbreneman

Posted Wed, Feb 22, 10:32 a.m. Inappropriate

Great story, great station, and have frequented it. The volunteers are super.

My question: Did Amtrak ever stop in a more central Olympia location and, if so, why did it chose to move to east Olympia? Amtrak in Olympia is inconvenient to most travelers.

Posted Wed, Feb 22, 4:22 p.m. Inappropriate

According to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Centennial_Station, "The original Union Pacific station at East Olympia was demolished in the late 1960s." According to this -- http://www.historylink.org/index.cfm?DisplayPage=output.cfm&file;_id=7929 -- it looks like it was near 4th and Adams.

Posted Wed, Feb 22, 10:52 p.m. Inappropriate

Thank you, volunteers for your countless hours of time! What a nice story.

Perhaps AAA could put something in their guidebooks that this terminal is fully staffed by volunteers who meet every train?

Posted Thu, Feb 23, 8:46 a.m. Inappropriate

Snus-
Olympia is a few miles off of the main BNSF mainline, at the end of a branch. It was apparently not geographically feasible way back when it was built to run the main line through Olympia itself. The UP station spoken of was probably for frieght only. The old NP depot still stands on the shore of Capitol Lake, and until the late '50s hosted a local train that ran from Seattle, through South Tacoma & Ft. Lewis, & out to Aberdeen & Hoquiam.

alally

Posted Sat, Feb 25, 10:18 p.m. Inappropriate

Good article. I'm a regular user of Cascades/Coast Starlight (PDX, Eugene, Santa Barbara) and a member of NARP. More rail service! It would be good if we could get service reinstated to an Olympia station on Capitol Lake. I've thought that since commuting on I-5 to Olympia for the 1975 Legislative Session.

louploup

Posted Mon, Mar 5, 11:57 a.m. Inappropriate

As the project manager, I'd like to address some of the comments about the article. The location of Centennial was chosen because the mainline of the Northern Pacific bypassed downtown Olympia in the late 1800's. The citizens of Olympia built a narrow gauge railroad to connect with the mainline in Tenino. In 1890, the NP built a mainline between Tacoma and Hoquiam which passed through the downtown and a station was built by the lakeside. The current direct Seattle - Portland mainline was rerouted from Tenino to Tacoma via Solo Point some years later again bypassing downtown Olympia. The Union Pacific having trackage rights over the NP route, built a spur into downtown from East Olympia and had a station at East Olympia as well as downtown (4th & Adams)which still stands as a sports store. In the early days, UP trains shuttled passengers back and forth to East Olympia. Even after the East Olympia Station was removed, Amtrak still stopped there. The building that today stands next to the lake is not the original station but an office building built by the NP on the site of the original station. The last passenger train through downtown was in 1956. A strong movement to bring Sound Transit to Olympia is gaining momentum as the Sound Transit trains would stop at Centennial then continue down the Union Pacific branch to downtown Olympia and terminate at the old Olympia brewery site. An expansion of this proposed service would be to run additional Sound Transit trains into Lacey via the existing track from the mainline at St. Clair to Union Mills.

rail_a

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