Posts Tagged ‘Stranded on Amtrak’

Marooned Aboard Amtrak This Week

January 9, 2014

Hundreds of Amtrak passengers this week found themselves stranded on Monday when a savage winter storm brought trains to a standstill in the Midwest.

Drifting snow halted three eastbound trains in north central Illinois while the westbound Cardinal was marooned in Indianapolis.

Various news reports indicated that some of those stranded made the best of the situation with some even finding some enjoyment in it.

“The best part of it was having another night on the train and actually getting to meet people and getting to talk to everyone,” said a passenger stranded passenger aboard the California Zephyr. “In the car that I was in everyone was going up and down the car talking to people, making friends, and just telling jokes, telling stories.”

But it wasn’t all pleasantries, though. Some passengers spoke of cold passenger cars and inoperative restrooms.

News reports indicated that passengers read books, watched movies on computers and took what amusement they could from a conductor who cracked jokes over the intercom.

Food ran low and some tempers boiled over, but the Amtrak staff sought to keep the heat on, entertain children and even escorted small groups of people outside for smoke breaks.

“You hear those horror stories about the cars that stop in the snow and they freeze to death. I thought, ‘Oh God, this is going to happen, we’re going to be in blankets,’’’ said passenger Chris Smith.

Some 20 hours after becoming stranded, the passengers were put aboard buses and arrived in Chicago on Tuesday.

The passengers were aboard the Southwest Chief from Los Angeles, the Illinois Zephyr from Quincy, Ill., and the California Zephyr from the San Francisco Bay area, said Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari.

The trains were halted late Monday near Mendota, about 90 miles west of Chicago.

In one account, the Southwest Chieft slowed to a crawl as it hammered through snowdrifts in an empty stretch of Illinois countryside near Arlington, delivering thuds and jolts to passengers, until it lurched into a mound big enough to grind its 8,000-horsepower engine to a halt.

Amtrak service on the BNSF line east of Galesburg, Ill., halted when the Chief hit a nearly 12-foot snow drift that paralyzed the engines, said passenger Bryan Plummer by cell phone.

“They started to cut through heavier and heavier drifts,’’ said Smith, 45, describing his train.

“The passenger on my side was joking, he said, ‘I think we ran over somebody.’ They weren’t huge bumps, but it was enough to jerk the train.’’

When the train stopped altogether, around 4 p.m. Monday, a conductor came on the loudspeaker and quipped, “As you can see, there’s a little bit of snow out there.’’

“At first it was kind of funny, and our conductor had a good sense of humor about it, and then it stopped being funny,’’ said Carley Lintz, a 21-year-old journalism student on her way back to Northwestern University from her home in Gardner, Kan.

Plummer, who lives in Galesburg, had boarded the train between 1:30 and 2 p.m. Monday afternoon and had been unable to find an open seat

So he sat in the lounge car and spent Monday night trying to rest his head on a table.

He had a somewhat small serving of beef stew for dinner and said that tensions were high in the lounge car for much of the experience.

“My seat was a hard bench and I was able to rest my head on the table,” he told the Galesburg Register-Mail. “The other thing was, after dusk, we had no updates on our status and no other food available … just very ill-prepared and communication was horrible.”

Some passengers described a different experience. Barbara and Merlin Dennis of Denver, commended Amtrak’s service and amenities after they boarded the Chicago-bound bus in Galesburg.

“We were very comfortable,” Barbara said. “They did a phenomenal job of taking care of us with a free supper and breakfast. … You can’t blame Amtrak for the weather.”

Still, frustration throughout the long wait was inevitable for others. The Kaplans, who live near Chicago, boarded the California Zephyr after their flight from Salt Lake City was canceled.

“This odyssey began for us at 2 a.m. in Salt Lake City on Sunday,” Stephen Kaplan said, sitting in one of the five buses outside the Amtrak station on Tuesday.

While he praised the on-board staff, Kaplan said he wasn’t sure why the train was unable to travel the short distance to the Amtrak platform so passengers could seek lodging in the city.

According to Amtrak’s Magliari, “The train is a hotel. This is an overnight train with a dining car and sleeping accommodations.”

Complicating things for Nancy Tallyn of Palos Park, Ill., was a clunky cast on her right foot.

“My chair reclined a little bit, but I’m supposed to keep my foot up,” Tallyn said. “Trying to get comfortable all night was just crazy.”

Using her walker as a makeshift foot rest didn’t provide enough comfort to get any sleep.

However, despite the longer-than-expected trip home from Nebraska, she and her husband, John, were able to make some friends as a silver lining to the unplanned stall. As she sat inside the Galesburg station, waiting to board the bus, Tallyn talked about the experience with good-humored sarcasm. “Oh, it was a fun night.”

Several passengers speaking to news outlets by cell phone said conditions on the trains deteriorated as the ordeal continued and that they went long periods without food.

“The condition is cold; we’re wearing coats. And my husband is a diabetic. He hasn’t had any food all day,” Laurette Mosley told ABC News. “The bathrooms are flooded. The sinks are full with water and the toilets are flooded.”

Mosely was traveling from California to Chicago to attend her mother’s funeral.

Plummer, told ABC News that passengers were given dinner but no snacks during the 15 hours that they were stranded.

“I inquired about breakfast service and they stated that at this time there was none planned. When the sheriff’s officer who was on board here left around 3 a.m. this morning, he stated that the Red Cross was involved and was trying to get us some meals,” Plummer said.

It wasn’t until Tuesday morning that the marooned passengers were put aboard buses. About 300 passengers from two of the trains boarded buses in Princeton.

A third train with 217 passengers spent the night in the BNSF rail yard in Galesburg. Those passengers boarded charter buses to complete their trips Tuesday morning.

“It’s a fairly remote area in Bureau County where the tracks go through something like a trench,” Magliari said of where the trains were stranded. “The trench itself was full of snow and ice and we couldn’t just plow through it.

“So it was safer to leave passengers on the train with full hotel systems, with light and heat, and toilet systems — all overnight — rather than transfer people through the trench in the snow at minus 5 temperatures and transfer them to buses,” Magliari said.

“Our trains and our passengers benefited by this happening so close to Galesburg because of the BNSF resources and the skill and dedication of the rail workers,” said Magliari. “We worked together with freight locomotives so the resources were there.”

Magliari said emergency workers were on standby and on-board train crews were with passengers all night serving dinners and preparing for potential medical issues. But no medical emergencies arose on any of the trains.

“There was no good reason to take people out of warm trains … into the cold,” he said. “We sheltered them in place.”

The crew served a dinner of beef stew over rice, but the lounge car eventually ran out of everything but drinks, passenger Smith said. Although some passengers speaking to news outlets by cell phone earlier Tuesday had complained about deteriorating conditions, including flooded sinks and toilets, Smith and others on his train only saw overflowing trash cans.

As night set in, some tried to sleep. Others paced. There was enough of a 3G signal for those glued to smartphones and tablets to stay connected.

Another train coming to the rescue also got stuck. Local authorities arrived. Crews shoveled and plowed, and passengers eventually were moved to a second train, taken back to Princeton and put on buses to Chicago. The ordeal lasted some 17 hours.

A Chicago Tribune story quoted a passenger on the Illinois Zephyr, Sarah Johnson, 19, saying the crew told passengers they were going to try and free the train by moving back and forth — like a car stuck in snow — but that didn’t work. A second train came but got stuck too, she said.

A rescue train showed up from Galesburg before 3 a.m. to take them to Princeton, the closest stop not obstructed by snow.

Alex Kasparie was a passenger on the Illinois Zephyr train that got stuck in the snow Monday afternoon.

The train was heading from Quincy to Chicago and was about 10 miles outside of Mendota when it ran into a 6-foot snow drift.

Kasparie, a law student at the University of Pennsylvania, was heading to Chicago for an interview and to visit friends.

At 4:30 p.m. Monday, Amtrak told passengers there would be a lengthy delay. “It turned out to be about nine hours they were stuck there,” Kasparie said.

Kasparie said passengers on the Monday train made the best of it. “Things could be much worse than they are,” he said.”We had food, we had power, we had electricity and I had cell reception, so I was able to follow the BCS National Championship on my phone.”

Kasparie was able to get some sleep when the crew told them it would take a couple hours to dig the train out after equipment arrived to pull the train out.

Passengers were just exhausted from the all-day ordeal, he said. “I think we were all just ready to get off that train this morning,” Kasparie said.

Around 3 a.m., the train was freed and pulled back to Princeton where passengers boarded buses for Chicago.

Kasparie gave credit to the crew, which had been on the train since Sunday. “The staff was absolutely exhausted,” he said. “They’re the real troupers in all this. As bad as we passengers had it, I’m amazed that they were able to do what they did considering how long they had been on that train.”

The trip, which left more than 4.5 hours after its original departure time, was relatively smooth through Galesburg. “We had to stop a few different times because ice froze a few of the switches up,” he said.

Further west, some travelers aboard the Empire Builder were stranded for a couple of days.

Magliari said the majority of the problems have occurred between Havre, Mont., and parts of North Dakota due to strong winter storms in the area.

“We’ve been unable to operate the Empire Builder in both directions from Whitefish (Mont.) this week,” he said. “I fully expect though with the relief of some of these harsh weather conditions and trains being where they’re supposed to be and crews being properly in place, then we’ll have normal service in the next 24 hours or so.”

An Amtrak spokesperson in Oakland says that an Empire Builder train was scheduled to leave Seattle on Tuesday afternoon, and was expected to make a full trip through to Chicago.

In Indianapolis, Chicago-bound Cardinal stopped just outside of Indianapolis Union Station early Monday after frigid weather froze switches A few hours later, the train was brought to Union Station as officials tried to find alternative ways for travelers to leave the city.

“It was a whole quagmire of a situation,” said Chicago resident Jason Butler, who was on his way back from Ohio. “The frustration was in not knowing what’s going on. It was a little scary. I was three or four hours away from home and I didn’t know how I’d get there or when.”

Amtrak’s Magliari, said that CSX would not allow the Cardinal to use its tracks and Indianapolis roads and freeways were not passable.

“We worked with CSX and bus providers after CSX told us they cannot accept the train,” he said. “Throughout the day Monday, there were indications that I-65 or the tracks might open, but neither one occurred. We were not going to put them in a train that was going to travel at undetermined speeds all day long.”

Passenger Tamera Swenson said a bus was supposed to take them to Chicago on Monday, but they were later told that vehicles couldn’t travel on I-65.

Magliari said 150 passengers were on board when the train left Washington, D.C., on Sunday. Some found their own travel accommodations. Others, like Swenson and Butler, were placed in a downtown hotel.

Magliari said passengers still in Indianapolis were scheduled to leave Tuesday morning aboard the Hoosier State.

CSX spokesman Bob Sullivan said in a brief statement that the transportation company has been in communication with Amtrak about the train’s status.

It was a flight cancellation that led Chicago high school teacher Rob Chambers, his husband and mother-in-law to take the train back to Chicago after the couple were married in Delaware, where same-sex marriage is legal. “We’re calling it the honeymoon ride home and here we are stuck in Indianapolis,’’ Chambers said by cellphone.

Train passengers also weren’t the only ones stranded in Indy. About 25 to 30 bus riders had to make do Tuesday inside the Greyhound station. Cots and blankets provided by the Red Cross helped make the situation more bearable, and the stranded riders also were given hot meals and food vouchers. Buses had been idle at the Greyhound station since Saturday.

Dozens of travelers stranded by the recent winter storm were holed up on Tuesday at the Indianapolis International Airport.  At least 105 flights were canceled at the Indianapolis airport during the winter storm.

Amtrak cancelled several Chicago hub trains Monday through Wednesday due to the severe weather and a need to get equipment and crews back into position.

That bothered Rick Harnish of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association. “I am really disappointed that we haven’t made the kind of investments, both at the state level and at the federal level, that would allow these trains to keep running in this kind of weather,” he said.  Harnish said it would be great to have trains offering transportation on days when the weather prevents flying and makes driving difficult.