GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Taxpayers paid millions of dollars to build the Grand Rapids Amtrak Station, but tips led Target 8 to uncover that they may not be getting their money’s worth.
That’s because it appears the station hasn’t been open half the time it’s supposed to be, leaving passengers in the cold.
The station, which is located on Century Avenue SW, opened in late 2014. It cost taxpayers more than $6 million. The funding came from a $4.6 million U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Railroad Administration grant and a $1.5 million match in Federal Transit Administration, MDOT and local funds.
The station is supposed to be open before the Amtrak train leaves for Chicago in the morning and again when it rolls back in each night. But Target 8 found on multiple occasions that the building was locked up at night.
The Pere Marquette train is the only one in to Grand Rapids from Chicago at night.
“You would think if this is the last train of the night, they would at least have it open,” train passenger Alvin Valentin told Target 8 at the station on a chilly Saturday night just weeks ago.
Instead, lights were off and doors locked as the train came rolling in. Valentin, who was waiting for someone to pick him up, found warmth in a small vestibule connected to the building, but he and others had no access to the taxpayer-funded amenities in the station like bathrooms, vending machines and indoor seating.
It wasn’t off-limits to everyone, though. Target 8 watched as Amtrak personnel got to wait inside for the train to arrive.
“I saw some of the workers just leave, just now, which doesn’t make any sense,” Valentin said.
The Rapid owns the station and leases it to Amtrak. An Amtrak employee told Target 8 off-camera that the station wasn’t supposed to be open.
The contract, obtained by Target 8, indicates otherwise.
According to the contract, the Rapid is supposed to “use its best efforts to open or close the station” for Amtrak personnel and passengers to use it. Based on the schedule on the door of the building, that’s about half an hour before and half an hour after train departures and arrivals.
The issue at hand is that the train hours have changed. Amtrak altered the schedule in May 2015 so the train leaves earlier in the morning and comes back later at night. The hours on the door don’t reflect the change.
Target 8 found the adjustment was made for the earlier departure time. The building was open at 5:30 a.m. ahead of the new 6 a.m. departure. But when the train returned around 11:30 that night, the station was dark.
Records show Amtrak sent a request to the Rapid Jan. 13 which stated: “Amtrak is requesting that the lobby portion of the Grand Rapids station be open again for the arrival time of train 370; currently only the vestibule is open when this train arrives. Train 370’s scheduled arrival time is 11:39 p.m., I would like to have the lobby open at 11:00 p.m. Initially when the station became operational it was fully open for train 370’s arrival. Due to a schedule change with a later arrival of train 370 we verbally agreed to have only the vestibule open due to a conflict with the Caretaker. We have had numerous inquiries from passengers as to why the lobby and restrooms are not available to them while waiting for pick-up. Also, the vestibule is small and cannot always accommodate the number of passengers waiting. For these reasons we are requesting the lobby be open again for this train’s arrival. As verification, the lobby should be open at 5:00 a.m. for the morning departure of train 371 at 6:00 a.m.” .
A Rapid spokesperson told Target 8 in an email Tuesday night that “the change in the train schedule last month did cause some scheduling problems with the contracted station attendant who has been in place for years, first with AMTRAK directly and then with The Rapid.”
“We have been working with AMTRAK and the contractor to find a solution,” the spokesperson’s email continued. “We now have a solution in place to ensure that the station is open before and after the arrival of the train as expected.”
Just before 11 p.m. Tuesday, a worker appeared at the station while Target 8 was outside to unlock it and turn on the lights before the train come rolling in. He said he had been hired about a week ago. That was around the same time Target 8 started making inquiries of The Rapid.
Target 8 requested an on-camera interview from The Rapid but has not yet heard back.