2020 Congressional mandate requires staffed ticketing operations at all Amtrak stations
BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – A congressional mandate that apparently didn’t land on Fort Madison officials radar has the city back to its original signed agreement with Amtrak in relocating the depot to Riverview Park.
At Tuesday’s City Council meeting, Fort Madison Mayor Matt Mohrfeld said he was “embarrassed” that his information was out of date on a ticketing mandate from the Federal Railroad Association that required a manned ticketing presence in the new depot.
Mohrfeld had been looking forward to being the first to step off onto the new depot next month, but that may be delayed as the city looks to complete its agreed upon renovations for Amtrak passenger services at the new location.
The agreements that have been signed between the city and Amtrak have always included a staff for ticketing, including the necessary IT space, passenger counters and amenities, including a waiting room for up to 31 people.
Marc Magliari, a spokesperson for Amtrak, said Amtrak personnel are currently working with city officials on how the building can be used for all the entities involved, including the North Lee County Historical Society.
However when upgrades were done over the past several years to the NLCHS building to accommodate the new depot, counters weren’t installed and there wasn’t room allocated for baggage storage and increased Information Technology infrastructure, or security spaces.
City officials were operating under the impression that Amtrak wasn’t going to staff the Fort Madison depot and it would just be a kiosk stop, as it has been for the past three years at the current location.
But last week Mohrfeld met with Amtrak officials on the project to update the agreement with new plans and was told the station would indeed be a staffed ticket station. The mayor was looking to include other options for the space if it wasn’t needed for ticketing operations.
The city started remodeling the depot about a decade ago in preparation for the relocation.
Mohrfeld said he’d like to see the depot also be the city’s new welcome center and was going to talk about reducing the original agreements specs to allow other things to be done with that space.
“If it’s not going to be a ticketed station, let’s rethink the original deal. If we’re not checking baggage, there’s no need for a room. No need for a safe room, no IT room and no ticket counter,” Mohfeld said Wednesday.
“So we bring all these people together and I start that conversation and they tell me we are mandated to make that a ticketed counter…and I was just dead in the water. And I have to take ownership of some of the miscommunication. I don’t like saying that, but I have to.”
Mohrfeld said the outcome is still a good outcome for the city. But some additional renovations will have to take place now at the depot, which will, in all likelihood, delay the opening of the depot.
“This is good. We’re going to have a fully ticketed station,” Mohrfeld said.
“Right, wrong, or indifferent there will have to be a little more money spent. When they did the remodel we didn’t put door openers and the ticket counter never got built, and I don’t have any background on that thought process.”
ADA compliance and additional passenger service construction will be required before operations can begin including some grading issues on depot entry points, as well as operational improvements agreed to between the city and the passenger rail line.
Mohrfeld visited another historic depot in Mattoon, Illinois last week and said Fort Madison’s depot should carry that same century feel to it.
“We want it to be a century experience. We need to integrate displays from the museum in a secure fashion, and I think that needs to be our welcome center, too. Co-mingling those operations would be a win-win for everyone.”
Mohrfeld said he understands the disappointment of the historical museum people and said the city should have been reviewing everything six months ago.
“What we’ve had here is an unfortunate set of circumstances. Reality is we got our hopes up with reconfiguring the design, and they were disappointed in having to go back to the original agreement,” Mohrfeld said.
The current Amtrak depot hasn’t had an agent since 2018. Local legislators and city officials met with Amtrak at that point to keep the ticketing office staffed, but the change took effect.
Mohrfeld said that no longer fits the F.R.A.s model and the new office will have to be ticketed.
Magliari said about three years ago, he and Ray Lange, another Amtrak regional representative sat in a Fort Madison meeting with people from the city who were upset that Amtrak was closing the ticket window services.
“Since then Congress mandated that we restore ticketing at stations where we had withdrawn it. We and the city have been in discussions about how to manage that in view of the lease signed by the city with us,” he said.
“We’ve had a team of people in town twice in the last two weeks talking to the city and Historical Society about how we can all do well in that building. But the fact is that there was always going to be a waiting room and that room is fully occupied with exhibits from the historical society. We need a ticket counter and those were in the original plans with the city. We need a place for them to work, and for the engineers to work.”
He said currently Amtrak isn’t taking cash for tickets, but some officials want that restored and if that becomes a mandate as well, a secure space will be needed for handling cash. He said they will also need what he called a data closet for ticketing and passenger information, all amenities that were included in the original agreement the city has signed.
Magliari said they have been trying to fill the position in Fort Madison.
“We’re advertising for the jobs. It’s been very hard to fill these jobs. Although the pay is pretty good there is physical acuity involved, drug tests, and other cultural aspects to the job, and it’s tough to fill.”