Marfa PD struggles to handle Amtrak emergency stops

MARFA — Marfa Police responded to a dispatch call to meet Amtrak’s Sunset Limited train for an emergency stop in Marfa last Thursday night, around 9 p.m. It was the second call this month, and police arrived to conduct a “civil standby” for someone being escorted off the train. That night, an elderly male disembarked. He was surprised to learn from the police that there was no Greyhound station and no affordable motel vacancies that chilly night in Marfa.

Amtrak Regional Media Official Marc Magliari explained Amtrak’s approach to removing passengers from the train, saying, “Generally what happens is when people are not compliant with directions given to them by the crew, and they apparently need some kind of medical treatment or something like an EMS response, we will talk to the railroad dispatchers, and Union Pacific’s dispatcher would reach out to the nearest place to transport them which could be Marfa.”

Magliari said emergency stops are the “last resort, not the first resort,” adding that if a train crew is unable to convince someone to not be disruptive, “the presumption is that they must be having some sort of health issue. The idea is to give them to emergency responders to get them to a facility where their health can be examined.”

But this month’s calls weren’t medical concerns, nor was EMS dispatched to respond to them, Marfa EMS director Burt Lagarde confirmed.

In total, three passengers were ejected from Amtrak in Marfa this October, with two being kicked off the night of October 3 and another on October 24. During the October 24 incident, Marfa Police Department was surprised to learn the emergency call was prompted partially because the man was being “rude.”

Marfa Police Chief Steve Marquez said, “This gentleman was kicked out because he wasn’t cooperating with them, he was being rude. When he talked to my officers, he wasn’t drunk, and he was an elderly male.”

Amtrak told MPD that the man had been disruptive since the train departed Tucson, Arizona. If the elderly man’s behavior was bad enough to warrant an ejection, Marquez felt that Amtrak had plenty of official stops between Tucson and Marfa where he could have been removed from the train.

Speaking of the passengers MPD has encountered recently, Marquez said, “The guys are being rude or they’ve had too much to drink. It’s kind of funny, because Amtrak is the one serving them alcohol.” The chief said if a passenger is drinking too much, the train should take it upon themselves to stop serving them adult beverages.

“If they have someone being belligerent, starting fights, that’s totally understandable,” Marquez said, “but it’s becoming instances like this gentleman, where he wasn’t fighting with anyone. We got two excuses: one that he didn’t have a ticket and two that he was being rude.”

Marquez estimates that Amtrak has asked for MPD assistance ten to fifteen times in the past two years since the department was formed. Lagarde, of EMS, confirmed, “We do service Amtrak, probably once a year. It could be anything from chest pains and low blood pressure to asthma, a seizure – anything that’s an extreme medical condition.”

That means MPD is often responding alone to the stopped train. When the civil standby is complete and Amtrak continues on to El Paso or Alpine, Marfa police’s responsibilities have only just begun. “We can’t just say, you’re off the train, welcome to Marfa. We know this individual is going to be walking around, and it is coming up on freezing nights. We have to find him a place to stay or at least help him to where he’s going,” Marquez said.

The elderly man who arrived October 24 was unable to find a place to stay in Marfa that night, and a Department of Public Safety trooper eventually volunteered to drive him to Alpine to find a hotel and a bus or train ticket the following morning.

Marquez said, “It is becoming a real nuisance that they’re dropping them off here when the train is only 20 minutes away from Alpine where there are affordable hotels and more transportation options.” Marfa also doesn’t have late night medical services, so EMS would be the only option for passengers with medical conditions.

On top of those concerns, Marquez said Amtrak isn’t pressing charges against the passengers they are dropping off, meaning MPD doesn’t formally process them or make case files. Instead, MPD is informally choosing to assist these travelers in finding resources to get them on their way.

“Our churches here are not the richest, but they help where they can, and they help a lot,” Marquez said. The police department coordinates with local religious groups –– one might put the passenger up for a night, while another might buy them a bus ticket that gets them to their destination.

“They’re stuck here. Our churches are very great to us, they help us out, but this is becoming a frequent situation. We have no trouble with helping Amtrak, but this is getting out of hand,” Marquez said. “If they’re being drunk and belligerent we understand that, but some of these other circumstances do not make sense to us. It is our job so we respond and do what we can.”

Maglieri of Amtrak said he would look into the October stops in Marfa, but had not responded to requests for more information about the incidents by press time.