Senate bill would restore Amtrak staffing to Union Terminal station

CINCINNATI -- A bill moving through the U.S. Senate would restore full-time staffing at Union Terminal's Amtrak station.

U.S. Senators Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, introduced an amendment to an appropriations bill for transportation, housing and urban development currently under consideration. The amendment would require the publicly-owned and operated passenger rail service to restore staffing levels to 10 other cities in addition to Cincinnati.

Amtrak pulled its two full-time staff members from Union Terminal and closed the station's ticket window in June -- along with 14 other stations -- as part of a round of service reductions for stations hosting less than an average of 40 passengers per day.

Rail advocates attributed lower ridership to recent renovations at Union Terminal, and said while those renovations are underway, Union Terminal passengers need more assistance than ever. 

The temporary Amtrak station on Kenner Street, adjacent to Union Terminal, photographed May 2, 2018. (Eric Clajus/WCPO)

"If anything, especially during this time of Union Terminal being rehabbed and the location and security and difficulty for (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliance, we need the assistance of the full-time Amtrak employees," said Derek Bauman, regional director of the rail advocacy group All Aboard Ohio.

Before the de-staffing, Union Terminal offered a ticket window and two full-time attendants.

"Our amendment would pretty much guarantee that Amtrak in Cincinnati would be staffed," Brown told WCPO Thursday by phone.

"Amtrak is not a hugely profit-making enterprise. Railway never is in any country in the world, and I'm standing with Senator Portman to fix this so that Cincinnati stays on the map in terms of presence for Amtrak," he said.

Brown said governments need to be thinking about all modes of transportation when planning and seeking funding.

"I understand that you're never going to have as many passengers on rail as you do on the Western Hills Viaduct or I-71 going through Cincinnati," he said. "We're a driving culture, but rail needs to be a part of that."

In a news release Thursday, Portman cited the needs of the elderly or people with disabilities trying to use Amtrak without staff members present.

"As Union Terminal makes its much-anticipated renovations, Amtrak passengers should not be punished for their continued ridership," Portman said. "This is particularly true for elderly and disabled individuals who may have to carry baggage down to the train platform unassisted."

Brown told WCPO his staff has heard stories of people struggling to board without staff present, and that sends the wrong message.

"It's pretty clear that if you're going to have an Amtrak station, if you're going to have passenger rail, you need to staff it in a way that provides service because otherwise you'll lose public support for it," he said. "We've seen that over the years with Amtrak."

After Amtrak announced the de-staffing of Union Terminal, a spokesman told WCPO that third-party attendants would be present on the platform during the overnight hours, when Amtrak's Cardinal Line comes into the station. The Cardinal Line's current schedule has it arriving at Union Terminal every other night.

Brown said he hopes the re-staffing will be a move toward boosting Amtrak service.

"I'd love to see expanded rail in this country. It's not something we've done for a number of years," he said. "Most countries do, and I'd like to see us do better."

Efforts have ramped up in recent years to advocate for increasing the Cardinal Line to daily service through Cincinnati. Rail officials and elected leaders from other cities along the line gathered in Cincinnati in 2016 to strategize, and Oxford, Ohio, recently reached an agreement with Miami University and the rail provider to open a new station in the Butler County college town near the Indiana border.

Brown said he expects to see staffing return "as soon as the amendment passes."

Both Cincinnati City Council members and Hamilton County commissioners have expressed support for bringing back Union Terminal's Amtrak staff.

Pat LaFleur reports on transportation and mobility for WCPO. Connect with him on Twitter (@pat_laFleur) and on Facebook.

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