By Derek Hann

Amtrak says ticket agent decision is final

Tester, Gianforte say looking for next step


Havre Daily News/Ryan Welch

Passengers from Amtrak's westbound Empire Builder train take a moment to stretch their legs and smoke a cigarette Wednesday.

Montana's senior senator, Democrat Jon Tester received a response for his concerns about Amtrak closing ticket offices in Havre and Shelby from Amtrak Executive Vice President Stephen J. Gardner the day the Havre ticket agents lost their jobs.

In the letter, Gardner cited the fact that more and more people are purchasing tickets online and over the phone nationwide as why the national passenger rail service is eliminating ticket agents in stations averaging fewer than 40 passengers a day.

Tester's press secretary, Marnée Banks, said the senator is continuing to look at what can be done.

"Sen. Tester is taking his lead from the community and listening to local residents about the best path forward," she said this morning, adding that people need to keep contacting all of the members of Montana's congressional delegation and Amtrak about their concerns.

A spokesman for U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Mont., said Gianforte's office received a letter from Amtrak this morning and they were reviewing it.

The Havre Daily News had not received a reply to a request for comment from Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., by printing deadline this morning.

Daines and Gianforte sent a joint letter to Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson May 25 and Daines also spoke on the issue on the floor of the Senate.

Tester also sent letters to Anderson.

In the letter responding to Tester, Gardner said that Amtrak has no plans on bringing back the ticket agents to the Havre and Shelby stations, adding that Amtrak at this time has no plans of reducing the frequency of the train.

"Amtrak must remain mindful of our congressional directive ... to minimize government subsidies," Gardner said. "We estimate that removing full-time agents from these two stations with fewer than 40 passengers will save approximately $200,000."

Gardner added that the cuts will allow Amtrak to redeploy these savings into the national network capital investments and other improvements.

Gardner said that even though ticket agents will no longer be available at these stations, Amtrak's data studies have shown that through the company's website, toll-free number and smartphone app Montana residents will be able to buy tickets ahead of time, securing lower fares, including any applicable discounts.

"Roughly 6 percent of all our sales are made through traditional ticket agents at our stations nationwide," Gardner said. "Of nearly 10,000 customers boarding at (the Havre and Shelby) stations in Montana so far this fiscal year, we believe that only 30 percent and 17 percent, respectively, purchase tickets though the stations agents and of these approximately 2,300 passengers, only 14 percent and 16 percent, respectively, paid with cash."

Former Amtrak Havre ticket agent Leslie Shelton said at a special meeting of the Havre City Council last month that she and a co-worker started in April tracking ticket sales in Havre. They found that 7-out-of-10 customers purchased their tickets from the ticket agents, with a large number of them being bought in cash.

People also have raised concerns that many in the area who use Amtrak do not have credit cards or even bank accounts, and have limited or no access to the internet.

Gardner said in his letter that the onboard crew will offer any necessary baggage assistance for passengers whether they are boarding or disembarking from the train.

"Finally, we have secured a station caretaker," Gardner said, "who will handle all opening and closing responsibilities as well as maintenance at these stations, including garbage removal and bathroom cleaning."

The caretaker declined to comment to the Havre Daily News Wednesday.

In his letter, Gardner wrote, "We are proud to serve our customers in Montana, and we look forward (to) continuing to work with you and your office on ways to effectively serve your constituents for many years to come."

Many of the customers riding the Empire Builder passing through Havre Wednesday were unaware that the ticket office has closed.

Darrel and Maria Jones of Florida were riding the train from Whitefish to travel through the mountain pass as tourists before boarding a second train back to Whitefish.

They said that they had stopped off in Havre to wait for the train to ride back to Whitefish, and were unaware of the restaurants and the tourist locations in Havre. They said they sat in the station for hours waiting for their train.

Darrel Jones said not having ticket agents to talk to about the community was unfortunate.

"Everything is turning electronic," he said, adding, "You miss out on the experience of going though these small towns."

Local resident Dewie Snow said that this was the first time he had purchased a ticket using the toll-free number, having previously bought them from the ticket agents. He said he was confused about how he was supposed to receive his ticket because no one told him.

Mariah, who declined to provide her last name, was sitting at the station with her two young children, waiting for the train to come in. She said that her relatives, mostly grandparents, ride the train at least four to five times a year. Her grandparents almost exclusively use the Havre ticket office to buy their return tickets and the ticket agents being gone is an inconvenience. She added that her relatives usually come into town with food, presents and other items in their bags and not having a baggage check has become a downside to Amtrak services.

Mariah was unaware that children younger than 16 cannot ride the Amtrak train alone unless the station where they are boarding or debarking has ticket agents. She said that it was inconvenient for families and could see how it would be an issue. Mariah added that there is "no benefit" to losing the ticket office.

Pearl Gauer and her daughter Sally Wilhelm, who were there to pick up Gauer's grandson who was riding from Seattle, said they always buy their tickets in person and have not purchased a ticket since Amtrak announced that it was closing the ticket office. They said that without the ticket agents, they were concerned about the amount of baggage their grandson had brought because they expected that he would arrive with many bags.

"It's sad," Wilhelm said about the ticket office closing, adding, "Nobody wants face-to-face communication."

Bryce Bennett and Kendra Eyman of Kalispell said they were unaware of the ticket offices closing. They said they boarded the train in Shelby last week and were grateful they they checked their bags when the station still had ticket agents. Bennett said that it was unfortunate and he suspects it will minimize the use of the Amtrak line. He added he hopes the decision is reversed.

See the letter to Tester here:


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