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

The railroad station in Olympia Credit: Loco Steve (Steve Wilson)/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.’”

“That pissed us off no end,” said Bregent, in an interview with Crosscut recalling the motivation that the comment provided. “He couldn’t have done anything better to rile us up.”

Ultimately the state had a change of heart and invested several hundred thousand dollars in the site’s infrastructure. The project turned many heads, including some important ones in Spain, of all places: shortly before the station’s completion, Bregent related, a Spanish consul telephoned the committee and asked if a Spanish train-builder might further its hopes for selling Washington state some trains by contributing something to the Centennial effort. The company, Talgo, later put in more than $8,000 for the station’s clock. Today, Washington state owns three sets of Talgo’s articulated cars, which have served the corridor with remarkable reliability since the 1990s.

The most conspicuous naysayer was Amtrak itself. The national rail provider refused the committee’s request to provide any construction money, but did express the assumption that the committee would use what Flem termed “a McDepot design.”

“Amtrak wanted us to build something that looked like that thing in Tacoma that looks like a 1960s McDonalds hamburger stand,” he elaborated, referring to the current Tacoma station. “They were trying to dictate exactly what we did. We did it our way, and they wound up liking it.”

Indeed they did. After the building was completed, Amtrak contacted Bregent and asked to purchase a copy of a conceptual painting that Bellevue artist J. Craig Thorpe had done from the station plans; the committee had circulated prints of the painting to publicize the project. Bregent agreed readily, and Amtrak used the work to illustrate its annual calendar.

Amtrak’s representatives also pooh-poohed the volunteer staffing, which began as soon as the station opened. “’It’ll peter out,’” Flem recalls them as saying. Events have proven that skepticism ill-placed, too: the volunteers have met every train, without exception, since 1993. That includes the occasional very tardy Coast Starlight arrivals, which have required volunteers to come out at two or three in the morning, according to Rich DeGarmo, who supervises the 60 station volunteers as president of the Centennial Station Committee.

“We have three four-hour shifts, 365 days a year,” DeGarmo, an Olympia pharmacist, explained. “It’s all on the basis of a sign-up sheet at the station. People are dying to sign up and serve. We never have any openings, generally.”

Asked what motivates such a surfeit of volunteers, he answered, “They love trains. They have trains in their blood.”

The Amtrak system has at least three stations run by volunteers — including the Kelso-Longview depot, where Olympia’s volunteers, aided by the 40-page training manual they have written for new workers, helped get the volunteers going in 2011. A station in Missouri also runs on volunteers.

By replacing the lean-to at East Olympia, Centennial gave Amtrak ridership in and out of Olympia a major boost. How much money the station project has thus put in Amtrak’s coffers no one can say, but the presence of anytime-we-are-needed volunteers has certainly removed any need for Amtrak to install its own paid staff, as the station’s traffic volume would otherwise have called for. That saves Amtrak about $150,000 a year, according to DeGarmo.

Asked, by way of clarifying DeGarmo’s statement, how much station staffing costs generally, Amtrak spokeswoman Vernae Graham said in an e-mail interview that “the State of Washington would need to make the decision to staff [Centennial] and at what level. They would then direct Amtrak to study the costs and feasibility. That has not been asked of Amtrak so there is no information to do any type of costing.” She declined to furnish any further information.

Flem, who has lobbied on behalf of passenger rail in the Legislature since the ’80s, also noted the Centennial project’s political yield. He recollected the late Pat Patterson, a Republican who then chaired the Senate Transportation Committee, looking right at him at a hearing in the early ’90s, when the subject of the yet-to-open station happened to come up. “’Because of that Olympia station project you’re doing,’” Flem recalled the Pullman conservative addressing him, “’I’ll be supportive of the passenger rail program.’” Patterson got others in his sometimes-reluctant caucus to back th state program, which has since received the Legislature’s consistent support in its efforts to expand passenger rail service.

The station’s backers have made their voices heard at the local level, too. Local jurisdictions have put in almost $100,000 each year to maintain the station’s physical infrastructure, but in early 2011 the Olympia City Council decided unanimously to terminate its $11,000 contribution in view of a budget shortfall. “There was such an imbroglio from the people that they decided to reverse themselves,” DeGarmo said. The vote for reversal was likewise unanimous.

DeGarmo said that routine operational dealings with Amtrak flow very well, at least locally. Amtrak pays the rent for the station’s pay phone, about $8,000 a year, and, Bregent said, has contributed a nice station sign. Amtrak also honored the volunteers with its 2000 “Champion of the Rails” award. But the Olympia volunteers’ long efforts still sometimes look like unrequited love. Amtrak’s literature has always listed the station as “unstaffed,” and a recent call to Amtrak’s 800 number brought a restatment of the official line: the station has no staff of any kind.

In Amtrak-speak, “staffed” refers strictly to stations with Amtrak employees on duty. However, the provider also has not given the station its “attended” designation, which refers to stations with “non-Amtrak staff” providing services. In other words, Amtrak’s information indicates that, for example, a passenger with a disability should not expect any help when arriving at the station.

Flem reported that he had personally inquired with Amtrak about having the station listed in as “attended.” He said, “I left messages and I didn’t get an answer back.”

Asked why Amtrak has not provided the “attended” designation, spokeswoman Graham provided no answer.

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