By 1880, the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway had an operating depot in the City of Topeka, Kansas. For roughly the next 120 years, that depot was manned daily by a ticket agent until Amtrak went to a five day work week for the agent. During the days when the Santa Fe operated the depot, trains like the California Limited, Grand Canyon, Antelope, Kansas Cityan, and Scout all made stops at Topeka, along with many nameless trains known only by a number. The number of trains would decrease in the years leading up to the inception of Amtrak. When Amtrak began operating over the Santa Fe, trains like the Super Chief, El Capitan, and Texas Chief all made stops in Topeka during the early years of Amtrak Service.
By the time I moved to Topeka most were gone. The only train left serving Topeka was the once-each-way daily Southwest Chief. The Depot remained manned five days a week by a ticket agent. On days when the ticket agent was off, an Amtrak caretaker was responsible for opening the depot and helping passengers with their bags as they board and deboard trains #3 and #4, the west and eastbound Southwest Chiefs. Little did I know that this would change less than a year and a half after I moved to town.
One morning in May, I was having my cup of coffee while reading Railway Age. Like most mornings, the anchors on the local news were droning on about the usual structure fires and petty crimes that dominate the news in Topeka. Suddenly I was shaken from my daze as I heard one of the anchors announce that changes were coming to the former Santa Fe depot at Topeka, Kansas. When the news resumed, the announcement was made that Amtrak would be cutting the ticket agent position at Topeka and further west at Garden City, Kansas.
With only a few weeks until the last day, I decided I would attempt to get to the depot and snap a few pictures before the agent disappeared for good. This was not an easy task as the agent worked only Monday through Friday, and the eastbound Southwest Chief arrives most days at 5:18 am. On May 13th I awoke at 4:00 am and made my way to the depot, knowing that the caretaker would be working, but wanting to catch an early morning arrival. As I stood on the platform I struck up a conversation with a women who was traveling from Topeka to Philadelphia; she had been visiting family at Junction City, Kansas. She was very aware of the changes that were coming and was not happy about them.
As the signals east of the depot turned from yellow to red, she described how for many years she had used Amtrak to get to Topeka where her family would pick her up. She told me of the time when her ride had car trouble and was unable to pick her up on time. She explained that the ticket agent kept the depot open for more than two hours after the train departed so she could wait inside for her ride. It is this type of service that she will miss, noting that a similar event occurred when the only person at the depot was the caretaker—he made her wait on a bench out front. When the headlight of #4 appeared she quickly gathered her bags and made her way down the platform. As I watched her board the train, I thought about all the people that will be affected by the loss of an agent at this and other depots around Amtrak’s system.
On Friday, May 19, 2018 the eastbound Southwest Chief was running three hours late. I arrived at the depot about twenty minutes before the train’s arrival and noticed a small group of people had gathered on the platform. These were not ordinary passengers, but instead were friends of the station agent and a couple of railfans there to witness an event that will never be repeated. As the train approached, the few passengers heading east came onto the platform and joined those already gathered there as the Chief made its stop. The agent made his way to one of the cars and helped load a customer’s bag before returning to a spot on the platform to watch the remaining passengers board.
I stepped back and took in the scene. With a blast of the horn, the train began to depart. As I watched the agent, he turned and began to walk towards the baggage cart almost as if it was just a normal day and he would repeat the same events for years to come. He won’t. As the train cleared the platform I saw him turn and watch as the last cars on the train passed, almost as if the reality of the days events were setting in. Never again would he watch the Chief depart Topeka as an Amtrak employee.
It is sad to see Amtrak making these changes to the way they operate. On one hand I understand that nine out of eleven tickets are sold online or at kiosks in the depots. On the other hand, passengers lose the personal touch and assistance that only a full time Amtrak ticket agent can offer. In Topeka, an initiative is under way by the city council to return the ticket agent to his Monday-Friday schedule. Only time will tell if this will be successful, but if I had to guess, the Topeka Depot will never be manned by a ticket agent again.
Cade Smith – Text and photographs Copyright 2018