Claremont volunteers meet passengers at train depot to help keep stop viable

  • Cindi Cleveland, of Claremont, N.H., left, and Gail Fellows, of North Charlestown, N.H., wait for the southbound Vermonter train to stop at the Claremont Junction station in Claremont on Thursday, May 2, 2019. The volunteers greet and assist travelers when the train comes in twice a day. (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Gail Fellows, of North Charlestown, N.H., volunteers at the Claremont Junction train station in Claremont on Thursday, May 2, 2019. The station host program, which started last May, is being used to incentivize keeping Claremont as a stop. (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Cindi Cleveland, of Claremont, N.H., left, and Gail Fellows, of North Charlestown, N.H., wave to the southbound Vermonter train as it pulls in to the Claremont Junction station in Claremont on Thursday, May 2, 2019. Cleveland and Fellows assist at the station every Tuesday and Thursday, while other volunteers cover the other days. (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Gail Fellows, of North Charlestown, N.H., guides Brother Blair, who is a Christian Brother, onto the southbound Vermonter train at the Claremont Junction station in Claremont on Thursday, May 2, 2019. Blair was headed to Penn Station for a connection to Indiana. (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Correspondent
Published: 5/3/2019 8:53:46 PM

Late one recent cool and rainy afternoon at the Claremont Junction train station, a long, loud whistle broke the relative silence and, moments later, a single headlight swung into view from around a bend south of the station.

Crossing lights flashed, bells clanged and gates dropped shortly before the Amtrak Vermonter screeched to a stop in front of Cindy Cleveland and Gail Fellows on the station platform.

The two moved quickly to place a bright yellow stepstool in front of a train door as it opened. A conductor stepped down, greetings were exchanged and passengers appeared in the doorway, trailing luggage as they received a hand stepping off. After the last of the six riders was helped onto the platform, the conductor checked for boarding passengers and, seeing none, bid farewell to Cleveland and Fellows and retreated into the train as the doors closed.

The stop took less than a minute and the Vermonter soon disappeared down the tracks headed to Windsor and eventually St. Albans, Vt., near the Canadian border.

Afterward, Cleveland and Fellows walked to the far end of the station, where they recorded some information about the stop, including the number of passengers, in a binder. Their hosting duties done, they headed home until their next stint as train hosts.

Cleveland and Fellows are part of a small dedicated group that has volunteered since last May as Claremont train hosts. They assist both departing and arriving passengers to help make the brief Claremont experience a pleasant one and help ensure that the New Hampshire city remains a stop on the line.

“I guess the best thing is people who come here either with passengers or to pick up passengers is that they are very pleased to have someone,” Cleveland said last week while waiting for the northbound Vermonter to arrive. “And it’s also fun if we maybe have first-time travelers. We are able to give them a little bit of information they may not have otherwise.”

Cleveland said she and Fellows cover Tuesdays and Thursdays, arriving in all kinds of weather. A core group of about 10 to 12 volunteer on other days for either the southbound train arriving at 12:06 p.m. in Claremont or northbound around 5:45 p.m.

The train host concept grew out of the creation of a committee by the City Council in the summer of 2014 with a goal of increasing ridership at the Claremont location, the only Amtrak stop on the western side of the state.

Claremont Mayor Charlene Lovett is a train host and an original member of the committee.

“The committee has focused its attention on innovative ways to increase the number of passengers using the stop and to improve passengers’ overall experience,” Lovett said in an email.

The group is not affiliated with Amtrak but has regular communication with Amtrak through the VTrans Rail Council in Montpelier and meets with the council on a periodic basis. It was at one of those meetings that Lovett learned of the station host program. With sufficient public interest, Lovett said, the committee moved forward with the host program and held a training session run by Amtrak employees for those who signed up to be station hosts.

“After having the host program in place for about a year, I then briefed the Rail Council on our efforts,” Lovett said. “The Rail Council and VTrans officials were quite pleased with our initiative. To, date we are still the only station on the Vermonter Line with station hosts. Amtrak officials are also very pleased with Claremont’s efforts and have briefed our program to Amtrak senior executives.”

State Rep. Walt Stapleton, R-Claremont, who is also a train host, had a career in the railroad industry. He and his wife, Claire, took their turn on a recent Friday night at the station.

He said one of the main measurements in considering whether to maintain a stop on a rail line is the number of “on/offs.”

Claremont, Stapleton said, has around 2,800 annually.

“The criteria for a viable stop, according to Amtrak, is 4,000,” Stapleton said. “So by station hosting here, marketing, PR — we are trying to incentivize the use of rail from a wide radius and thereby attract more people on and off so we can reach that 4,000 and secure our longevity here.”

With no money provided by the state of New Hampshire for the Amtrak service, Stapleton said regular c   om muni cations with VTrans is a way “to keep good fellowship with them so we could continue the Claremont stop.

“Without New Hampshire putting money in, it is goodwill and friendships and handshakes. If they ever do make cuts, this would be a vulnerable location because New Hampshire is not subsidizing.”

Train hosts are easily identified with blue caps and vests. They engage with passengers waiting to board and make sure those getting off have transportation.

“We make sure their rides come,  their taxi comes,” said Fellows. “If they say they have a ride, we say, ‘great, we will wait.’ ”

Sometimes, no one will get off or board, but other times, such as around the holidays, there may be 20 or more passengers. Fellows and Cleveland said they have spoken to people going to New York for work, a couple that attends the opera three or four times a year in the city and a group headed to Washington, D.C. for the Cherry Blossom Festival.

“So different times of year people have different reasons for taking the train,” Cleveland said

Last week, a couple from Hillsboro, N.H., stood with their luggage waiting for the train to New York City where they planned to board a ship for a cruise to Bermuda.

“It beats driving, fighting traffic, paying to park,” said Cathy Murdough, who was with her husband, Ryan. “We tell people this is how we are getting there (New York City) and they’ll say we didn’t even know there was a station there.”

Claire Stapleton said there are people in Claremont unaware of the station.

The train hosts also try to promote train travel and the area by telling people about things to do and places to eat.

The hosts typically arrive about 30 minutes before scheduled arrivals. They will advise those who may be waiting in their cars it is a good idea to be on the platform because the train does not stop for long.

“As train hosts, we’ve got to be ready, set, go,” Walt Stapleton said. “We have our stepstool and are ready to help passengers into the loading lane.”

The target time for the stop is under two minutes and anything above without a good reason, such as a lot of passengers, causes concern. Efficiency people look at that. They don’t like delays, Stapleton said.

“We try to do little things like keep the station clean, make sure the lights are working, garbage picked up, keep it safe. Appearance matters,” Stapleton added.

The host program has community support as well. Timberpeg, a Claremont maker of post and beam structures, donated the materials for a shelter in 2015 and Claremont Cycle Depot, in building next to the tracks, allows passengers to wait inside in cold weather and also use the restrooms.

“The public has reacted very positively to the presence of train hosts at the station,” Lovett said “Consequently, it is our objective to continue this service.”

And like most volunteer efforts, more hosts would ease the workload.

“We’d love to have a couple of more folks come down and help us out,” said Walt Stapleton, who urges anyone interested to contact him at 603-995-1034.

Patrick O’Grady can be reached at pogclmt@gmail.com.




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