Niles Amtrak train station ramps up volunteer host program

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Niles Amtrak train station ramps up volunteer host program

Unread postby GP30M4216 » Sun Dec 09, 2018 10:49 pm

Niles Amtrak train station ramps up volunteer host program
By Mary Beth Spalding South Bend Tribune
Dec 3, 2018

Source and photos: https://www.southbendtribune.com/news/local/niles-amtrak-train-station-ramps-up-volunteer-host-program/article_99d17cd5-a279-5c68-b2b9-b6a3f097e8ab.html

NILES — On a recent weekday morning, the waiting room at the Amtrak station gradually filled with 13 people waiting to catch the 11 o’clock train to Chicago.

It was a good-sized group, the kind of group that volunteer train station host Pete Womer likes to see — the kind that keeps him busy.

“You never know who you’re going to meet,” Womer said about host duties and train travel. He loves both.

A family of four was headed to Union Station in Chicago to catch Amtrak’s California Zephyr, which would take them on a two-day journey across the middle of the Great Plains to Denver and on to the San Francisco area.

Womer has taken that trip, and he was able to fill in the Johnston clan on what to expect.

He gave them bonus information, too, about the Niles depot, which Kathy Johnston said is “about a thousand times cuter” than the Amtrak station in Houston, near their Texas home. The Niles station on Dey Street is a striking structure that dates to 1892 and draws many admirers, some of them movie directors.

Womer told the family how the station has been used to film movie scenes, including shots for the 1981 movie “Continental Divide,” starring John Belushi.

Sharing such stories is all in a morning’s work as a volunteer train station host.

A host program for the station is being formed — training is planned for the middle of December — and Womer hopes more volunteers sign up. About two dozen potential volunteers showed interest at recent open house events.

Womer, a South Bend retiree who worked nearly 40 years in the utilities department at the University of Notre Dame, got involved earlier this year after learning that Amtrak was interested in recruiting volunteer hosts for the Niles station.

About 50 or so travelers pass through the station each day, he said, on seven trains coming and going. Volunteers can work whatever hours they’re able.

Amtrak transferred its on-site ticket agent in Niles last spring to a station with higher cash ticket sales volume, which changed things a bit for the local depot, Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said.

Caretakers were contracted to open, close and clean the station, and they also keep travelers informed about train arrivals. So even though the ticket window closed, the station, which used to be open from morning until late afternoon, stays open longer hours now, Magliari said.

The station is open from 9 a.m. until 10 p.m., or until the last train comes in from Chicago, so travelers have access to the waiting room, bathrooms and pay phone, if they need it.

Of course, with so many people carrying internet-connected smartphones today, the need to use a pay phone, buy a ticket in person or even have someone update you on the train’s arrival isn’t strictly necessary, because there’s an app for that — the same one Womer consults to track a train’s arrival.

So why the volunteer host program?

“It’s something happening in more and more places around the country where communities are engaging with us to have a welcoming presence in the stations,” Magliari said.

It’s not just at stations that have lost staffed ticket windows because of online purchasing trends, he said, although those places often are prime spots.

The Niles community has been active in helping Amtrak look after the depot, Magliari said, and the program here could serve as a model elsewhere in Michigan, or even across the border in Indiana, such as at the Elkhart station.

Amtrak has had a long-term partnership with the Four Flags Garden Club, Magliari said, to maintain the flower beds that distinguish the station and decorate it for the holidays.

When the idea of a volunteer station host program was floated, the city got involved.

Lisa Croteau, director of the Niles DDA Main Street program, was asked to help organize the effort.

She said the host program is important in carrying on the station’s “long history of hospitality,” the benchmark for which may have been set about a century ago by a local rail line gardener who gave each woman passing through the Niles train station a flower.

Croteau likes the idea of having someone at the station who can greet travelers, share tidbits about the history of the depot and serve as “kind of a concierge for the downtown and the city of Niles,” to tell people where they can get a ride or a bite to eat or whatever they need.

She set out to recruit some “train fanatics.” Womer reached out to her early.

“Pete is kind of my hero,” Croteau said. “He has taken this project on and is wonderful.”

Womer said getting involved was an easy choice for him. He was looking for a volunteer project, he’s been a train traveler for well over half a century, and he loves to meet people and chat.

“In the long run, it makes customers feel a little more comfortable,” Womer said. “It’s a good feeling knowing you’re helping people out.”
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Re: Niles Amtrak train station ramps up volunteer host progr

Unread postby Steve B » Tue Dec 11, 2018 11:49 pm

It's all smiles and fun until you attempt to explain to people why the train is 3 hours late and sitting in a field 20 miles west of town. I wouldn't do that for free. I especially wouldn't clean bathrooms for free, which presumably is what Amtrak expects these volunteers to do. Amtrak wants to "operate like a business?" Then it shouldn't foist off stuff to volunteers.
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Re: Niles Amtrak train station ramps up volunteer host progr

Unread postby trainnut » Wed Dec 12, 2018 10:45 am

The station host program has been very successful in both California and North Carolina
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Re: Niles Amtrak train station ramps up volunteer host progr

Unread postby Jetlink » Wed Dec 12, 2018 1:20 pm

Steve B wrote:It's all smiles and fun until you attempt to explain to people why the train is 3 hours late and sitting in a field 20 miles west of town. I wouldn't do that for free. I especially wouldn't clean bathrooms for free, which presumably is what Amtrak expects these volunteers to do. Amtrak wants to "operate like a business?" Then it shouldn't foist off stuff to volunteers.


If I understand correctly a care taker opens, closes, and cleans the station and is paid. The volunteer position is that of host and is separate from the care taker.
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Re: Niles Amtrak train station ramps up volunteer host progr

Unread postby Steve B » Wed Dec 12, 2018 7:43 pm

From what I hear, Niles is the first example of a new model for Michigan unstaffed stations to use only volunteers, not paid caretakers.
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