Last CSX ticket agent retires at Brunswick MARC station

Passengers now have to buy from a machine

June 09, 2010|By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

BRUNSWICK — — MARC passengers at this historic station in Western Maryland can still get tickets there, but as of today they'll have to buy them from a machine, not Barb Eichelberger.

Eichelberger retired Tuesday as a CSX ticket agent — the last person to hold that position in a railroad company that traces its origins back to the earliest days of American railroading.

"I'm the last of the breed. That's kind of special itself," said Eichelberger, who went to work on the railroad at 18 and stayed for almost 42 years.

It won't be the same without her.

The ticket machine isn't likely to brew coffee in the morning before the 5 a.m. train departs this old Frederick County railroad town on the Potomac River. Nor will the kiosk decorate the station for holidays, as Eichelberger would. It certainly won't remember the names of the commuters on the CSX-operated MARC Brunswick Line. And it won't give the federal discounts that many of its riders receive on their monthly passes. For that, they'll have to go elsewhere or get their tickets delivered by mail.

Commuters, retirees and old friends trooped through the red-shingled, Queen Anne-style station — which has stood at its current location since 1907 — in the early-morning hours Tuesday to say goodbye and to pose for pictures with Eichelberger in front of a banner wishing her a happy retirement.

Eichelberger said several of her regulars urged her to stay on, but to no avail.

"Yeah, but they might as well save their breath," said the vibrant 60-year-old, who seems too young to be the last of anything. Nevertheless, a CSX spokesman, Bob Sullivan, confirmed that she is indeed the company's last agent.

Ticket agents, who once played important roles in railroad-centered communities, have gone the way of the steam locomotive. New technologies have made it possible to sell tickets from vending machines or online.

For seven years, Eichelberger has been getting up before 3 a.m. to make the 26-mile drive from her native Hagerstown to open the station and put on the coffee at 4:15 a.m. — in plenty of time for the first departure of the morning at 5 a.m. Now she's looking forward to sleeping in, digging in her flower bed, spending more time with her three grandchildren and doing "what I want, when I want."

Eichelberger, who began her railroad career with the old Western Maryland Railway in Hagerstown before it was absorbed into the B&O Railroad, said she took the ticket agent job in Brunswick despite reservations. Some encounters with disgruntled riders during a previous posting as a tower operator in Martinsburg, W.Va., had raised doubts whether a customer service job was for her.

"I figured I'd get fired because I couldn't work with the people, but my customers proved me wrong," she said.

Eichelberger was already well into her last day at work when Judy Foster of Brunswick became one of the final passengers to buy a ticket for the last 7:40 a.m. train the agent would usher out of Brunswick station.

"She's very helpful, very friendly," said Foster, adding that with Eichelberger's retirement, she'll have to buy her federally discounted ticket at Washington's Union Station.

David Motz, Eichelberger's supervisor and a 36-year railroad veteran himself, said that at one time he had 15 ticket agents working for him in stations such as Gaithersburg, Rockville, Harpers Ferry and Martinsburg, the Brunswick Line's western terminus.

"Any place the train stopped, we had a ticket agent," he said.

Motz said Eichelberger would do a theme decoration for every holiday. On her last day, the red, white and blue decorations from Memorial Day were still hanging in the depot.

"She's great. I wish I had 10 of her. Never had a problem, customers all love her," he said.

Dave Shackleford, chief curator of the B&O Railroad Museum, said the job of ticket agent goes back almost as long as the American railroad industry, which got its start in 1830 when the B&O — a corporate ancestor of CSX — made the first U.S. railroad journey from Baltimore to what is now Ellicott City. Even before the railroads built stations, he said, ticket agents operated out of hotels and taverns.

Over the decades, Shackleford said, ticket agents became important members of their communities and sources of local information.

"The railroad stations were the hubs and centers of community life for many, many years," he said.

Shackleford said it's no surprise that CSX, a giant transportation company formed out of the mergers of B&O and many other railroads over the years, would shed the last vestiges of its history as a passenger railroad. The railroad is planning to hand off its operational role in the MARC system's Brunswick and Camden lines after the Maryland Transit Administration selects another vendor.

"CSX is a freight system, and that's where the money is," he said.

While Eichelberger is happy to call an end to a career and an era, and she won't miss the drafty old station in winter, she's not thrilled about being replaced by a vending machine.

"I don't think it's right. Personally, I would rather talk to and buy a ticket from a person," she said. "It's much nicer having a personal service than a machine that could go out at any time, but that's modern change that everybody has to get used to."

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