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Warm smiles and iron horses

Volunteers keep train depots open
Thursday, March 3, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 3:36 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

While the artificial fireplace at the Kirkwood train station doesn’t keep the place cozy on snowy Wednesday nights, Marge Nardie’s genuine smile provides a warm welcome.

“I like working at night because people that come in are grumpy and —well — I’m not,” Nardie said.

Nardie is one of 76 people who volunteer at the Kirkwood depot in an effort to preserve passenger train service there. She has been coming in twice a month during the winter and once a week in spring and summer since the volunteer program started in 2003, when Missouri eliminated paid Amtrak ticket agents at stations along state routes.

Lack of funding

Amtrak has had financial problems on the federal level for years, making volunteers such as Nardie necessary at some stations. President Bush’s proposed budget for fiscal 2006 includes little money for Amtrak unless states agree to accept more responsibility. The $360 million he has promised even without reforms probably would not keep Amtrak out of bankruptcy.

Meanwhile, a House committee in Missouri voted Tuesday to eliminate the $6.4 million that Gov. Matt Blunt recommends spending on Amtrak next year.

“This is just to continue the existing level of service,” said Bret Fischer, assistant director of the State Budget Office.

Since 2003, when the state switched to volunteer staffs, it has saved $320,000 a year, said Brian Weiler, multimodal director for the Missouri Department of Transportation. The state also increased ticket prices $5 and cut all promotional funding.

Danny Couch’s efforts at the La Plata Amtrak train station have continued regardless of uncertainty about money for Amtrak. A stroke Couch suffered years ago makes walking difficult and speaking even harder, yet he still comes in every morning at 9 to wait with the passengers. Couch is a station agent who receives a small salary from Amtrak.

“This station boards a lot of people in a year. Just like you came all the way from Columbia to write this story, people come all the way from Columbia to ride the train,” said Couch’s friend, John Collum.

Collum said many passengers are students at Truman State University in Kirksville, and others drive to the station from Iowa.

Collum often visits Couch at the station. They have milk crates of movies to watch until the next train arrives, when Couch goes outside to wave as it comes in. The two have been friends for years.

“His aunt was my first wife’s best friend,” Collum said.

Moving a nation

Like many of the other Missouri train stations, the La Plata station was built in the late 1800s. The cinder-block station, with a set of small wooden shelves for children’s books and an unused ticket counter, can seat about 30 people on its orange and blue chairs and wooden benches.

Couch keeps the depot in pretty good shape, Collum said: “He’s a good citizen, but he’s getting gray hair.”

The La Plata station and Kansas City’s Union Station are the two Missouri stops on the federally funded Southwest Chief route between Chicago and Los Angeles. The other federally funded train, the Texas Eagle, stops in Poplar Bluff and St. Louis and travels daily between Chicago and San Antonio.

The state also contracts with Amtrak to run the Ann Rutledge and Missouri Mule routes between Kansas City and St. Louis. These trains make two trips daily and stop at eight additional stations.

[photo]

Butch Morrison, a Union Pacific worker, and his co-workers prepare to board an Amtrak train bound for Kansas City last week. They were waiting in Jefferson City for a westbound train to take them home.

Weiler said MoDOT receives $25,000 a year from the state for station improvements. That pays for minor improvements at all 10 stations, such as new trash cans or benches.

“That $25,000 does not improve much of anything,” he said. “It’s not enough for anything significant.”

Connecting the community

City government bodies and community organizations cover major station developments and basic maintenance. The Friends of La Plata, a community restoration group, spent five years renovating the La Plata Amtrak station, said Ann Bullock, the organization’s secretary.

The city of Kirkwood bought its train station in winter 2003 from Union Pacific, the company that owns the train tracks Amtrak uses. Nardie said volunteers take improvement requests to the city. Although Kirkwood is home to people of all income levels and ages, she said citizens overall support city-funded improvements.

“It’s the spirit of this station,” Nardie said. “Some might squawk about new developments, but they have so many fond memories of this station in their life.”

The Jefferson City train station is an important part of the community as well. After Amtrak employees were cut in 2003, citizens interested in staffing the station met and formed Capitol City Amtrak Friends Inc. Now the group has about 25 volunteers.

“We open up the (train’s) two doors and count the people who get on and off,” volunteer Judy Towson said. “We exchange pleasantries with the conductors and help passengers with baggage. Ensuring comfort is more important than the count.”

The Jefferson City station was built as a hotel in 1855. It is now part of Jefferson Landing State Historic Site, which is controlled by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. Towson said the DNR and depot workers share the building.

Towson volunteers with her husband, William Towson, every Friday morning. The couple met over the phone years ago while Towson was working on an automobile account for a railroad company.

“He would call, and I would let him know where the rail cars were and make arrangements to get them loaded,” Towson said. “We were married in six months.”

The Jefferson City station was also the setting for a romantic moment. One fall evening, a couple and a minister dressed in casual clothes showed up at the station and had a small wedding ceremony. Two children stood behind them holding balloons while a station volunteer sat at her desk.

Passenger train service that runs through stations like Jefferson City, Kirkwood and La Plata is not in immediate danger, despite the proposed federal cuts. Congress must approve the budget before Amtrak loses any money.

“The service is there, and it will be there tomorrow,” Weiler said. “If it is ever (curtailed) we’ll put notices out there about it.”


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