BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – This was no theater production, but the drama got pretty heavy Tuesday afternoon as about 50 residents and policy makers grilled Amtrak officials about going to an automated ticket kiosk in Fort Madison as opposed to a ticket agent.
Ray Lang, the government affairs and corporate communications officer for Amtrak, sat under the bright lights of the Old Fort Players playhouse and took questions from a mostly senior crowd on why local ticket agent Amy Lambert’s position was eliminated last week.
Marc Magliari, another Amtrak spokesman, was also on hand to help field questions.
Elected officials including Mayor Brad Randolph, City Councilman Bob Morawitz, who is also running for the Iowa House, Councilman Chris Greenwald, State Senator Rich Taylor, State Rep. Jerry Kearns, and Jared Herschberger from U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack’s officer were all in attendance.
While several of those in attendance applauded Lambert’s work as a ticket agent in helping them through difficulties of travel and making sure their itineraries and baggage were handled correctly, the elected officials were also concerned about how not having someone on staff at the depot would effect numbers of riders.
Randolph, who has been working with Amtrak on behalf of the city in an effort to get the city’s depot moved back to Riverview Park, told Lang he had a concern that not having a staffed ticket office would hurt the city’s efforts.
“In addition to the loss of a job, we’re getting ready to spend a rather large amount of money and the concern going forward is that some sort of conditions could change that would eliminate this stop,” Randolph said.
He asked Lang to share his thoughts on the future of the Southwest Chief, which runs east and west through Fort Madison.
“I’m just worried if you’re not going to have the customer service side of it, people would forego Amtrak on this route and the numbers start to speak for themselves and that’s a justification for changing this route,” Randolph said.
Lang said he didn’t foresee the changes as precursors to any changes in routes. He said the Southwest Chief is the fastest train from Chicago to the west coast.
“I don’t see a time in the future where we would not be servicing Fort Madison,” he said. “The two best sections of the Southwest Chief are between Chicago and Kansas City, and between Albuquerque and LA. They have really great ridership and I am confident there will always be service in this corridor.”
Lang said they are under a mandate to eliminate food service losses and operating losses on long distance trains.
Kearns said Amtrak’s problems are economics.
“I would assume you wouldn’t be laying these people off if it wasn’t for the money. I think you should take back to your leadership the fact of what’s the value of these agents. Would you be better off keeping them and increasing the value of the ridership and the customer base. I think that’s a good question for you to take to the leadership,” Kearns said.
Lang said it would be in the state’s interest to become a partner with Amtrak on corridor service. He said Amtrak has a very good relationship with Burlington Northern Santa Fe to help develop those networks and corridors.
“It’s really how you build growth. I think it would be a great corridor for short distances,” Lang said.
Taylor told the group that he would try to work on that type of an agreement when the next legislative session begins.
Susan Chaney of rural Donnellson said Amtrak didn’t need to develop more routes, but needed to hold onto their customer service.
“We need to be able to use the service that’s suppose to already be here through federal subsidies,” she said.
Chaney complained that without someone checking her bags or helping her with her bags it makes it difficult for her to travel.
“I’m still hung up on the dang luggage. When I get to LA and I want to get on the train to come back here do I have to carry it with me for four hours while I sit in the station,” Chaney said.
Morawitz said the city is trying to become a destination and is hoping the new depot would be part of the process. He said not having the service for the riders has an impact on the city and not just the railroad.
Lambert said the money for her position was included in the federal subsidy based on the budget prepared which included the ticket agents.
“Every year Amtrak goes to the government with the amount of money they’re asking for in a subsidy. What percent of money did Amtrak get?” she asked Lang.
Lang said they got the full amount.
“That money has already been allocated under the pretense that this is what it’s being used for,” Lambert said. “And now these agents aren’t in those positions, because that money is being hoarded for the prodigal child on the northeast corner.”
Lang said the two funding accounts, one for Northeast and one for the system, are separate accounts and can’t be shared.
After the meeting, Magliari said the turnout of the meeting was very good and there are clearly some things Amtrak can do to try and help make things better in Fort Madison such as implementing a train-side baggage check.
“We need to look at that sooner than later. Even if it’s not perfect, if there’s something we can do to help here we should try that.”