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Amtrak deems rider ‘Champion of the rails’

By Mary Spicuzza, Special to the Daily Planet
Friday October 26, 2001

EMERYVILLE – Doras Briggs can remember details of her first train ride down to the day, year and Amtrak line.  

“It was the Fourth of July, 1923. My dad gave me a train ride as my fifth birthday present,” said Briggs, who turned 84 on July 4. “It was the Waterloo-Cedar Falls and Northern Line, in Iowa.” 

Nearly 80 years later, Briggs said she could never forget this gift.  

And at an Emeryville City Council meeting this month, the five-foot tall Briggs stepped up to the podium to receive praise not only as a life-long devoted train passenger, but as a powerful Amtrak advocate and “champion of the rails.”  

Briggs, director of the National Association of Railroad Passengers – a group of 16,000 volunteer train advocates – became a mass transit pioneer when she began a host program at the Emeryville Amtrak station. She now trains other volunteers to help passengers with directions, bus schedules, and travel advice.  

When passengers stop at one of her stations when Briggs is on duty, she bustles around providing assistance to anyone looking like they need it. She effortlessly explains the best direct train lines and bus routes, and probably knows the exact time a train pulls into stations around the country. Wearing a jacket with her short, curly gray hair covered by a volunteer host cap, Briggs serves as a brochure-carrying savior to the confused commuter. 

Hers is the first Amtrak-approved station host program in the country, and is quickly spreading to other stations. 

To honor her work, Mayor Nora Davis and other councilmembers declared Oct. 26, as “Dora Briggs/ Amtrak Volunteer Day.” Davis said councilmembers crafted the proclamation because of Brigg’s daily work helping Emeryville passengers.  

“Clearly, she is such an ardent fan of Amtrak, the train, and moving people by rail,” Davis said after the meeting. “For this city, that is so important. Her assistance has been so valuable.” 

Briggs is now training more than 20 volunteers as hosts for the Emeryville, Oakland, and Martinez stations. She said she keeps getting increasing numbers of host applications. 

In the Bay Area, where a BART strike is looming and airport lines are notoriously long, Amtrak West spokeswoman Vernae Graham said she couldn’t have hoped for a better friend for rail passengers. 

“She’s just incredible, she’s a spitfire,” said Graham. “She’s just our best friend.” 

Graham said Briggs also sends her articles about trains gathered from newspapers printed all over the country, usually before Graham receives them from Amtrak’s clipping service.  

“I hope I have that much energy when I’m that age,” Graham said. “It doesn’t get any better than Doras.” 

Briggs and her volunteers help rail passengers with travel tips, as well as information about local lodgings and events. Like Briggs, each host dons a jacket, volunteer station host cap, and a badge while on the job. This week hosts began carrying new security badges, complete with photographs for additional passenger safety. 

“The people behind the counter are so busy,” Briggs said. “We’re really just filling in the cracks.” 

Amtrak Service Manager Jeff Snowden said Briggs and her crew have helped more than they could know. While sitting in his office at the Emeryville station, Snowden said when he moved from Los Angeles last year, he turned to Briggs for information about restaurants and recreation in the Bay Area. 

“Some of our passengers get off the train and look for her,” Snowden said. “And she can’t wait to get out there to give information.” 

For example, Briggs easily listed the departure locations, destinations, and route numbers for buses to each of the major BART stations during one phone interview. 

Briggs has plenty of information about the Bay Area based on her own experiences. While a student at UC Berkeley, where she earned a music degree in 1942, Briggs funded her education by working as a church organist. She also worked as an associate chimes mistress, playing the Campanile bells four times a week. 

After retiring from her job at the university in the late 70s, she started devoting her days to the rails. Briggs, who is also a member of the Train Riders of California and similar groups in Washington and Oregon, frequently takes Amtrak around the country to attend railroad meetings. But Emeryville station employees said she always has time for their station.  

“She knows everybody here,” Amtrak employee Carita Leyx said. “She is just a lovely, lovely spirit.” 

Briggs said she will soon be moving to an apartment next door to the Emeryville station, and can’t wait to live closer to Amtrak. 

As Briggs accepted her honors at the Emeryville council meeting, she encouraged everyone there to ride the rails. 

“I hope I see you all on a train one of these days,” she said.