My first Amtrak adventure started at the Sturtevant Depot, one of many of Amtrak’s unstaffed stations, where I boarded Amtrak’s Hiawatha. Because I was overconfident and a little nervous, I almost missed my train due to a slight oversite; I didn’t double-check the depot’s location. I want your first experience to be better than mine.
Unstaffed stations are prevalent across the Amtrak and commuter railroads. Having a working understanding of how these stations work will prepare you for your first or next rail adventure.
Unstaffed stations are nothing to fear, and the time you’ll spend at these stations is a tiny portion of your trip.
My First Time At An Unstaffed Station
I made one big mistake on my first Amtrak trip by not double-check the Sturtevant (SVT) Depot address. I thought I knew where it was, but it wasn’t there anymore. They built a new depot just up the tracks and moved the old one to a park.
After a quick panic attack and a short drive with the help of Google Maps, I arrived at the new depot. I drove past the new one on my way to the old location. 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. I know the big train nerds understand that each means something different, but the term station is more common for new train travelers.
What Is an Unstaffed Amtrak Station?
An Unstaffed Amtrak station is a train stop with an indoor waiting area, and as the name implies, it does not have any Amtrak staff. Some stations may have bathrooms or ticket machines.
Who owns and operates Unstaffed Stations?
Local municipalities often own and operate unstaffed stations and maintain them how they seem fit. Some towns take pride in their stations like Sturtevant, while others do not realize how the condition of their station can reflect on their community.
The community is responsible for cleaning, locking, unlocking doors, and maintaining the station, but this staff does not help passengers. Amtrak provides informational materials for these stations and sometimes ticket machines at busier stations, but Amtrak is not responsible their condition of level of service.
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 you’re 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 an old station that could use an update, such as Kankakee, IL.
Other types of unstaffed stations and flag stops
Another unstaffed station is a platform station with no building but a sign or shelter to indicate where the train stops.
Many unstaffed stations are also flag stops, meaning the train stops if a ticketed passenger is waiting to get on or if someone is getting off the train.
The biggest takeaway is, no matter what kind of unstaffed station you use, the train will stop, you will get on, and the next step of your adventure begins.
Amtrak’s website and app offer information on each station in the system, and it pays to research where you get on and off the train to plan accordingly.
Services Offered And Not Offered At Unstaffed Amtrak Stations
Unstaffed stations do not offer checked baggage service. According to Amtrak’s website, self-serve train side checked baggage service is available to and from the following stations only: Charleston, WV; Cincinnati, OH; Columbus, WI; Crawfordsville, IN; Dyer, IN; Hammond, LA; Lafayette, IN; Meridian, MS; Mount Pleasant, IA; Rensselaer, IN; Texarkana, AR; Tuscaloosa, AL; Winona, MN.
Carry-on or trackside bike service (aka take your bike on the trains with you) is unavailable at all unstaffed stations. The booking process allows you to see if this service is open for your trip.
To avoid a last-minute surprise, read up before your trip if you plan on bringing a bike, golf clubs, or a pet.
- These machines allow you to conduct most transactions and print out tickets
- The machines only accept cards.
- Please verify that the station has a machine before leaving; this way, you can prevent frustration or a wasted trip.
Online Or Over The Phone
- To book by phone, call 1-800-USA-RAIL, and an agent will walk you through the process.
- Or book online either Amtrak.com or the Amtrak app, which allows you to book anytime.
After completing your reservation, Amtrak will send you an email containing your receipt and a PDF file, which is your ticket. Conductors can scan your ticket from your device or, you can print the ticket. If you have an Amtrak account and purchase your ticket online, it will appear on the Amtrak app on your smart device.
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 a lack of space.
- Cash only, and there is an onboard fee.
When booking your adventure, enter the email and cell phone number you will access during your journey. At times Amtrak may need to get ahold of you, and if they cannot get ahold of you, you could miss vital information.
If you have accessibility needs, it is best to call Amtrak; this way, Amtrak can anticipate and help accommodate you.
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.
For example, two unstaffed stations in my area are 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 a phone number 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.
Packing for Unstaffed Amtrak Stations
Since checked baggage service is not available at these stations, pack as light as you are able.
Whatever you pack, you need to carry it onto the train and put it in the proper storage areas. You may need to navigate stairs as well.
Conductors and onboard staff can help you get your luggage on and off the train, but you are responsible for getting it where it needs to go once your luggage is on the train.
Amtrak has a generous carry-on policy, and like other carriers, all bags must be under 50 pounds for the safety of the staff. If you go over the 50-pound limit, you may have to pay a fee for overweight luggage.
Packing light offers flexibility and makes traveling more comfortable. Travel backpacks work great for train travel, such as Tortuga Backpacks. From my experience, 25″ or smaller luggage is more manageable, and carry-on size is better if you can.
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 you give yourself a 30 minutes buffer, and I agree. This time cushion allows you to grab everything, check that you turned your headlights off, the car is secure, and time to take a deep breath before your adventure starts.
A few times, I became overconfident in my “time management skills and parked my car in time for a great view of the train rolling away without me. I need to remember to leave time for unexpected traffic, detours, paying for parking. or a quick stop at Kwik Trip for breakfast.
Preparing For Your Adventure
Check this page for service alerts and notices, for it 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 can sign-up after the fact. These alerts send you updates on your train.
Amtrak’s Alert Twitter account helps monitor your train if there is a delay.
When The Train Arrives
As the train approaches, stand behind the yellow line or at least six feet from the tracks for your safety. Once the train comes to a stop, look for the open doors and conductors. The conductors and attendants will come out to help you get to where you belong.
If you have a Business Class reservation, let the conductor know; they are looking for you so they can get you to the right car. It doesn’t hurt to watch for the business class car as the train approaches and head towards the conductor nearest to that car.
If you have a boarding question, ask a conductor or other staff while on the platform. If you have non-boarding or more in-depth questions, wait until you are onboard and ask once the train moves.
Trains can arrive early, but they will not leave before their scheduled time. The only exception is a flag stop.
Takeaways On Unstaffed Amtrak Stations
- You cannot check bags at most stations (exceptions are in the baggage section).
- 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.
- At some stations, conductors can make announcements from approaching trains.
- There is no staff to answer questions.
- The onboard staff will help you on and off the train.
- When booking
- Use a cell phone number and email address that you will have access to during your trip.
- If you have disabilities, make that indication when booking.
I hope this article helps you understand what you need to know and expect if your plans include unstaffed stations. The main issues I have experienced at these stations came from fellow passengers, who do not prepare themselves or listen to the announcements.