Topeka city manager Brent Trout recently sent a letter to Amtrak management seeking a restoration of services in the city — specifically, he was asking Amtrak to consider rehiring a ticket agent for the Topeka station that serves the Southwest Chief.
The answer, a no, wasn't what he expected.
"It was a little surprising," Trout said. "I thought the (legislative) language was clear, but they (Amtrak) view different positions in different ways. ... We were hopeful that we could get that back."
Amtrak eliminated the ticket agent — also called a customer service representative — from Topeka in 2018. The passenger rail provider also eliminated the agent in Garden City at that time. The Southwest Chief is the only passenger train serving Kansas, operating between Chicago and Los Angeles with six stops each day in the state of Kansas.
“With strong consideration for the needs of the Topeka community, we are requesting that you reinstate the position of the ticket attendant for the Topeka Amtrak Station that was in place in fiscal year 2018. Please respond with an estimated timeline for the reinstatement of this position for our station,” Trout wrote in a letter dated March 7.
Trout cited the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2019, which contained the line, “Amtrak is directed to provide a station agent in each Amtrak station that had a ticket agent in the fiscal year 2018.”
Amtrak, however, responded via letter that Amtrak is in compliance with the act by placing a “caretaker” at the station.
“This caretaker is present during the open hours for the station, which is two periods per day: 12:00 midnight to 2:00 am. And 4:00 am to 6 am. The caretaker does not sell tickets or handle money,” wrote Stephen J. Gardner, senior executive vice president of commercial, marketing and strategy for Amtrak.
Duties for the caretaker include cleaning the station, answering basic questions and providing information to passengers about the train-side baggage service, including how to place baggage tags on bags.
According to Amtrak, the last employee at Topeka held the title “customer service representative.” Also according to Gardner, less than one ticket a day was sold at the Topeka station and less than 3 percent of ticket sales came from station sales involving cash.
“We will continue to monitor the ridership levels at the station, to ensure the adequacy of this arrangement,” Gardner wrote.
"There were, occasionally, people who have bought tickets at the station, even though the numbers are low," Trout said. "It was an opportunity for people who do not have a computer."
In the 2017 fiscal year, the most recent year available for ridership numbers, Amtrak saw 10,084 “alightings” in Topeka, making it the second-busiest station in the state. Newton has been in the top spot for several years, with 15,828 passengers on and off the train in 2017.
"The terminal is critical," Trout said.
Other Kansas cities served include Lawrence (9,834 alightings), Hutchinson (4,294 alightings), Garden City (6,966 alightings) and Dodge City (5,208 alightings).
“I do expect those numbers have gone down,” said rail advocate Evan Stair.
Stair said that is because of such moves as removing ticket agents, overtures by Amtrak to stub line and an apparent desire to dismantle long-distance routes.
Lawrence, Hutchinson, Garden City and Dodge City all have unstaffed stations, according to Amtrak schedules for the Southwest Chief.
Garden City found a different solution to the loss of a customer service or ticket agent. The city, according to city manager Matt Allen, owns the passenger station and is now having employees open the station and maintain it. There are computer terminals at the station for ticket purchases.
"In the global look at things, we saw an opportunity to talk to Amtrak about improved services at our station," Allen said. "What we have set up now is a step in the right direction."
In three years, Allen said, no tickets were sold by station attendants. That, he said, was due in part to the hours of operation of the station attendant, who wasn't even at the station when the train came in at 11 p.m. for the eastbound train and 6 a.m. for the westbound train.
Stair, the president of Passenger Rail Oklahoma and Passenger Rail Kansas, plans to take this fight to Congress — where Jerry Moran, R-Kan., and a bipartisan group of legislators blocked an Amtrak plan to create a “bus bridge” between western Kansas and New Mexico last year. Moran introduced an amendment that added $50 million to the allocation for the Southwest Chief. That amendment also specifically prohibits Amtrak from using buses on the line.
Still, the fight for the Chief continues.
“It seems to me that Amtrak is continuing its assault on the Southwest Chief despite congress funding to keep it,” Stair said. “They have painted a target on the Southwest Chief.”
According to the Rail Passenger Association, the Southwest Chief generates $180 million in annual economic activity in Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico, including $116.4 million in “permanent direct economic gains” each year, which includes spending on operations, tourists and the income from those visitors, and lower travel costs for families who live along the Southwest Chief route.