HAVRE DAILY NEWS: Tester calls for quickly restoring ticket agents in Havre, Shelby Amtrak stations
By: Tim Leeds, Havre Daily News
U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., is doubling down on his efforts to restore ticket agents in some Amtrak stations including in Havre and Shelby.
"I am reaching out today to highlight the importance of in-person ticket agents in Amtrak stations in rural Montana" he wrote in the letter.
Tester is offering to work with Amtrak to get ticket agents back in the Amtrak stations and sent a letter to Amtrak President Richard Anderson last week.
"I respectfully request that you now work to immediately reinstate ticket agents in the Havre and Shelby stations," he wrote in the letter.
Amtrak has increasingly eliminated ticket agents in stations that have average daily passengers below a certain level, and in 2018 eliminated agents in 16 stations across the country that averaged fewer than 40 passengers a day, including in Havre and Shelby.
Amtrak said its automated telephone ticket service and internet ticket service could provide the tickets people needed.
HI-Line residents and the Rail Passenger Association lashed out against the decision, and the members of Montana's congressional delegation, Tester and Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., and Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Mont., all contacted the corporation requesting the ticket agents be put back, but Amtrak, saying it was its duty as a steward of taxpayer dollars, refused to reinstate them.
That included when Congress ordered it to provide station agents where ticket agents had been cut in 2018. It did that when it passed in February funding to prevent a federal government shutdown, also reversing an Amtrak decision to cut out part of the route of the Southwest Chief that runs from Chicago to Los Angeles - with Amtrak proposing replacing train service on 450 miles of the route with bus service.
But Amtrak said the language in the funding did not require ticket agents and station attendants with whom it had contracted could provide customer service.
Some, including the members of the congressional delegation, said that ignores the fact that some people needing to use the train do not have easy access to the internet and that the difficulties of using the telephone service - and not having live agents to answer questions and help with purchases - outweigh any cost savings.
Others said that ticket agents do much more in stations than just sell tickets.
An example cited was a Havre ticket agent in April 2018 who - after the elimination of ticket agents was announced but not yet implemented - helped a passenger get life-saving medical care. The agent then helped him get aboard the train and headed onward several days later.
People said the cut also ignores issues ranging from ticket agents telling passengers what is available in the community to providing tourism services and collecting baggage to get it onto the baggage car. Other services include answering calls about the schedule and the fact that if no ticket agent is present, children cannot get on the train unless an adult guardian is traveling with them.
When the House worked on its transportation bill, it did not order Amtrak to restore the ticket agents but, in its report on the bill, directed Amtrak reverse course on plans for some cuts and on shifting of funding of long-distance trains to state governments, specifically including the ticket agent cuts.
President Donald Trump's budget proposed using grants to states to allow them to fund long-distance rail service and the states gradually taking over all responsibility for long-distance routes, and for replacing some long-distance train travel with busing.
The House Appropriations Committee report in June said the committee was not funding grants to provide to states for transition to their operating long-distance routes and to replace some service with busing.
"The Committee strongly rejects this proposal and provides strong funding for Amtrak to continue to provide service through long-distance and state-supported trains," it said.
The committee report also rebuked the idea that station caretakers could provide customer service, telling Amtrak to provide a station agent to "assist passengers with their intercity passenger rail travel, conduct the sale of tickets, provide customer service during all hours the station is open and peform building maintenance duties."
The report also directed Amtrak to re-examine and work to restore private and charter car use on Amtrak trains, to maintain the current level of Amtrak's police department and to work to improve on-time performance and to use a public procedure when it is considering changes to its policies.
Tester went a step further in the appropriations bill, which fully funds Amtrak operations, writing language in the actual bill directing the passenger rail service to provide a station agent in the stations where they were eliminated, including Havre and Shelby.
Tester alluded, in his letter to Anderson, to the multiple services ticket agents provide.
"Passenger rail service is a critical component of Montana's Hi-Line transportation system," he wrote. " ... Eliminating these ticket agent positions does not take into account the vital role these folks play in their communities.
"Ticket agents' chief responsibility is to provide passengers with accurate schedule information and cost-effective ticket pricing, but they also serve folks in ways that automated systems cannot. Ticket agents promote tourism and are able to help secure medical care for passengers who might need it. Since the Havre and Shelby ticket positions were eliminated, locals have struggled to put their children on trains because minors are unable to ride Amtrak without a ticket agent present. Having an Amtrak-trained official on the platform is an invaluable resource and should not be replaced by a machine."