Caretaker keeps Lawrence Amtrak depot running while city sleeps

Nighttime in Lawrence is most often a quiet time.

Unless you’re Nate Anderson.

That’s because Anderson mans the Lawrence Amtrak depot, 413 E. Seventh St., opening it for the arrival of the midnight train. The nightly gig hasn’t been gentle on his hearing, but he’s learned how to cope since assuming the role of midnight caretaker last June.

“I’ve been here long enough,” he said. “I usually wait inside the door to save my ears.”

While the train itself, known as the Southwest Chief, may be noisy, the Lawrence depot rarely is. The station averages between 10 and 20 passengers each night on a track that runs between Chicago and Los Angeles. That often means there isn’t anyone for Anderson, 37, to talk with during the hour or so he spends on the job each night. He fills his downtime with cleaning, music and, when the wireless connection is decent, Internet browsing.

He also takes advantage of the time when he is around people, getting to know the conductors on the No. 3. But his chats with the train officials have gotten significantly shorter in his time at the station since the 30-minute layover was eliminated. Now the train stops just long enough to let passengers enter and exit.

“It’s only in Lawrence for five to seven minutes,” Anderson said. “That’s if it’s running on time.”

The depot wasn’t always as welcoming as it is now. In its recent history, the station had been more a shelter for the homeless than a waiting room for train riders. When Anderson dropped his brother off at the station last summer, he found out about the caretaker job opening.

Anderson now unlocks the doors, which used to remain open overnight, and cleans the station. When the weather is nice, he sets out chairs to accommodate waiting riders.

“Having somebody here makes it a lot more inviting,” he said. “I get told a lot of times that people appreciate me just being here.”

That appreciation may be, in part, because of the reputation the depot used to have. A group called Depot Redux has been working hard to revitalize the station. The process has resulted in hiring depot caretakers like Anderson to open the building for the midnight train. Another caretaker was hired to open the depot for the morning train.

During his time at the station, Anderson has seen all sorts of crowds. He’s had quiet nights when no one shows up to ride, and he’s had his hands full with 70 high school band members crowding the small depot. Some passengers on the late train say the night crowd is entertaining.

“It’s an interesting crowd on the midnight train,” first-time rider Jeff Hattem said.

Apart from learning the ins and outs of depot caretaking, Anderson has also learned a lot about trains and everything that goes along with them. He can tell you how far away a train is by looking at the signal lights. He’s learned about the different track classifications. It was never something he thought he’d get into, but Anderson enjoys what he does.

“I’m not a big train buff,” he said. “But I am interested in public transportation.”

Anderson, who is currently without a full-time job, keeps in high spirits, jokingly labeling his work situation as “underemployment.” He also volunteers with Depot Redux and is preparing for the busier summer season at the station. Lawrence’s depot is technically unmanned, meaning it doesn’t sell tickets or check baggage.

Carey Maynard-Moody of Depot Redux said use of the local depot has risen 13 percent since 2010. The increase in passenger traffic should ensure the station stays open.

“I think our station is symbolic of survival,” Maynard-Moody said. “There’s something visceral about rail travel. It’s too much a part of our history. We’re not going to let it go.”

By Joe Preiner

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