Unstaffed Amtrak Stations: What You Need To Know

by Kev
Back of the SVT depot

Unstaffed Amtrak Stations: What You Need To Know

My very first Amtrak adventure stated at the Sturtevant Depot, an unstaffed Amtrak Station, where I boarded Amtrak’s Hiawatha. I was nervous and almost missed my train; as you’ll find out, I didn’t research one crucial piece of information. I want your first experience at an Amtrak Unstaffed Station to work out better than mine.

Unstaffed stations are becoming more prevalent across the Amtrak system; knowing how they work will make you a more prepared traveler. Both Amtrak regional and long-distance trains use unstaffed stations.

Unstaffed stations are nothing to fear, so don’t let the experience deter you from your next Amtrak adventure. The time spent at the station is only a small portion of your trip.

My First Time At An Unstaffed Station

With my first trip, my big mistake was, I didn’t check the address of the Sturtevant (SVT) Depot because I thought I knew where it was, but it wasn’t there. The location I drove to is now a CP Railroad maintenance building. The new depot is just up the track, and the old station is now in a park.

After a quick panic and a short drive with help from Google Maps, I arrived at the depot barely on-time.  I did not miss my train, but I did not have much time to spare.

Note: for this article, the term station refers to any Amtrak stop. Other names commonly used include stop, depot, or terminal.

Hiawatha at SVT

A birds-eye view of Amtrak’s Hiawatha at the Sturtevant Depot

What Is An Unstaffed Amtrak Station?

An Unstaffed Amtrak station is a train stop with an indoor waiting area but not staffed by Amtrak. The onboard staff can and will help you board and deboard the train. There is more about what happens when the train arrives later on in the article.

Who Owns And Operates Unstaffed Stations?

The local municipality owns and operates unstaffed stations at whatever level they seem fit, within reason. Some towns take pride in their stations like Sturtevant. while others do not.

Communities will clean, lock, and unlock doors, and do maintenance on the station, but the staff is not there to help with passengers. Amtrak may provide informational materials and ticket machines to busier stations, but they are not responsible for these stations.

Hiawatha at SVT

A southbound Hiawatha pulling into the SVT Depot

What To Expect At An Unstaffed Amtrak Station?

Like Forrest Gump might say, unstaffed stations are like a box of chocolate; you never know what is going to get.

Stations can range from a beautiful building such as my home station of Sturtevant, WI, or a small room at one end of the old station that could use an update, such as Kankakee, IL.

There is another type of unstaffed station call a platform station, and with those, there is not a building, but a sign or shelter to indicate where the train stops.

The biggest take away is, no matter what kind of unstaffed station you use, the train will stop, and the next step of your adventure begins.

Amtrak’s website or app offers information on each station in the system. It pays to research each stop you’ll have as you plan your trip so you can plan accordingly.

Services Offered And Not Offered At Unstaffed Amtrak Stations

Unstaffed stations do not offer checked baggage service.

Carry-on or trackside bike service (aka take your bike on the trains with you) is not available at all unstaffed stations. The booking process will inform you if this service is open or your trip.

Golf Clubs and pets services may be available for a fee, and like bikes, you reserve this service during booking.

To avoid a last-minute surprise, if you plan on bringing a bike, golf clubs, or a pet, read up ahead of time.

Here is an overview of my home station and the services offered there. 

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Services can vary.

Buying Tickets

To start your Amtrak adventure, you need a ticket! Some stations offer ticketing services via the Quick-Trak machines; Amtrak’s apps and website will indicate what stations have these machines.

For most train adventures, the best time to purchase tickets is as soon as you can to receive the best rates. Amtrak has a few unreserved trains with fixed prices, like the Hiawatha; with those, it typically doesn’t matter when you book. If you are looking to save on fares, check out this page on saving money on Amtrak tickets.

When booking, it is essential to use an email address and phone number that you have access to during the trip. If Amtrak needs to get ahold of you for changes or updates, the number and email address on file are the ones they use.

If you are disabled, make sure you indicate that when you purchase your tickets so Amtrak can anticipate how to accommodate you.

Quik-Trak Ticket Machine.

Quik-Trak Machine

Amtrak’s Quik-Trak ticket machine

  • These machines allow you to conduct most transactions and print out tickets
  • The machines only accept cards.
  • If planning on buying tickets this way, make sure there a machine at the station.

Online Or Over The Phone

  • To book by phone, call 1-800-USA-RAIL
    • An agent will walk you through the process
  • Online either Amtrak.com or the Amtrak app
    • Allow you to book anytime or anywhere

After completing the transaction, Amtrak will email the receipt and a PDF file of your ticket. This PDF ticket can be scanned by conductors or printed. If you have an Amtrak account linked to the app, often, your eticket will be available through the app.

Buying Tickets Onboard The Train – Not recommended

  • This option is not available on all trains
    • Space could be limited, and you could be turned away due to lack of space.
  • Cash only, and there is an onboard fee.

Parking

Parking can vary at each station, and long term parking may not be available. Each community determines the parking rules and length of time for their station.

In my area, there are two unstaffed stations, Milwaukee Airport Station (MKA) and the Sturtevant Depot (SVT). MKA offers a daily parking rate, and thirteen miles down the tracks, SVT offers one price for up to 30 days of parking.

If you have questions about parking, talk to the municipality or police department. Communities often post signs with phone numbers or have information on the community’s website.

A dry run to the station could help you familiarize yourself with the services and parking. You don’t want your trip to end with a parking ticket or a towed car.

SVT Lobby

The lobby of the Sturtevant (SVT) Depot, an unstaffed station

Packing for Unstaffed Amtrak Stations

Too much luggage

Does anyone need this much luggage?

Since checked baggage service is not available at these stations, try to pack light.

The more you bring, the more you need to carry on and off the train, and there could be several stairs to navigate as well.

Conductors and onboard staff can help with getting luggage on and off the train for safe boarding, but once on board, you are responsible for it again.

Amtrak has a generous carry-on policy, and like other carriers, all bags must be under 50 pounds for the safety of staff and to avoid a fee for overweight luggage.

Packing light offers flexibility and makes traveling more comfortable. Travel backpacks work great for train travel. From my experience, keep your luggage 25″ or smaller for greater mobility. Carry-on 21″ rolling bags work best or 40 liters or under travel backpacks.

If you are looking for travel backpacks, check out Matterful.co, this site offers helpful reviews of travel backpacks.

How Early Should You Get To The Station?

Unlike airports, you do not need to arrive two hours ahead of time, but you should be there early.

Amtrak suggests, and I agree based on my experience, to give yourself a 30 minutes buffer.  The buffer allows you to grab and verify you have everything, make sure the headlights are off, the car is secure, and time to take a deep breath before your adventure starts.

I have disregarded this information and parked my car in time for a great view of the train rolling away without me. A few times, I became overconfident in my “skills,” hit traffic, had an unexpected detour, or spent too much time at Kwik Trip trying to grab a snack.

Preparing For Your Adventure

Check this page often for service alerts and notices. This page shares information on service alerts: passenger and station advisories, and more.

Before you leave your house, verify the train is running on time. The Amtrak app or this site can help you check on how things are going. If you did not sign up for the text or email alerts when you booked your tickets, you could sign up for alerts on the website, so you know if there are significant delays.

Amtrak Alert Twitter account is handy to keep an eye on as well.

Hiawatha in SVT

Amtrak’s Hiawatha arriving at the Sturtevant Depot

When The Train Arrives

As the train approaches, for your safety, stand behind the yellow line or at least six feet from the tracks. Once the train stops, look for the open doors and conductors. The conductor will come out tell you where to go.

If you have Business Class, let the conductor know; they are expecting you and want to get you in the right car. It doesn’t hurt to look for the business class car as the train approaches and walk towards the conductor nearest that car.

If you have a boarding question, ask a conductor or onboard staff while on the platform, but keep the inquiries brief. They want to get the train moving as soon as they can.

For other more in-depth questions, wait until you are on board, and ask the onboard staff then.

Trains can arrive early, but will not leave before the scheduled time. The only exception is a flag stop. These are stops where Amtrak only stops if people are getting on or off the train, and if no one gets on or off, the train may not stop. A train can leave early if all the listed passengers board or deboard before the scheduled time.

Milwaukee Airport Station a busy unstaffed station.

Milwaukee Airport Amtrak Station, one of the busiest unstaffed stations in the Amtrak system

Takeaways On Unstaffed Amtrak Stations

  • You cannot check bags at any station.
  • Pets, golf clubs, or bike services are available at selected unstaffed stations.
  • The station may or may not have restrooms.
  • Many have ticket machines, but not all.
  • Some stations have announcements made by conductors on the train.
  • There is no staff to answers questions.
  • The onboard staff will help you on and off the train.
  • When booking
    • Use a phone number and email that you will have access to during your trip.
    • If you have disabilities, make that indication when booking.

I hope this helps you understand what you need to know and what to expect if your plans include using an unstaffed station for the first time. The main issues I experienced at these stations are from fellow passengers. Some passengers do not prepare themselves, or they don’t listen to the announcements.

If you are interested in traveling via Amtrak, check out my Riding Amtrak page. If you want to see more from me, contact me, or join the email list, click here!

Safe Travels!

Kev

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