I arrived in western Oregon on Saturday afternoon on a bus after Amtrak became significantly behind in schedule. I thought about a new motto for Amtrak; “travel by train – arrive by bus”. Amtrak management made a decision to terminate our train in Spokane. By turning it around in Spokane, they hoped to be on schedule returning to Chicago. Amtrak runs daily each way to major cities and it necessitates some adjustment to these lengthy runs should a major schedule delay occur.
Of all the delays occurring on my last leg of the trip perhaps none so amusing and frustrating was the 20 minute stop in Minot North Dakota which stretched into two and a half hours. Every member of a train crew is limited to the the number of hours they can be on duty and as far as I understood, if we left Chicago on time, their regulations necessitated a switch out of personnel driving and conducting our train before we would arrive in Portland some 46+ hours later. If I was able to see this, I wondered how is it possible Amtrak was unable to anticipate this event? If they knew it was going to happen then why did it require such a lengthy turnover somewhere in the Dakotas?
When we stopped in Minot, a new crew wasn’t there to meet the train. Engines running and people milling about on a platform, 20 minutes stretched into over two hours before the new crew landed. The delay in Chicago of over 2 hours while waiting for a replacement of one of three locomotives combined with this new delay meant we would be placed on sidings more frequently when east bound freight trains met us as we journeyed west.
Yes, after nearly 80 years of diesel electric passenger rail, starting in Chicago or Minneapolis and riding west, most of the route is on a single set of rail. Freight takes priority when each train meets from opposite directions. One of them must be switched over to a segment of track running briefly parallel with the main line. This means every meet requires a siding and a slow down in service. Once a schedule is altered for either direction, the whole system must adjust to accommodate this delay.
Passenger service shares the rail system with a freight hauling rail company such as CSX in the east or BNSF in the Northwest. Usage charges are levied as the rails are owned, maintained and operated by one of the six class one railroads still in existence in the US.
After falling behind schedule seven hours the decision was made to terminate the Empire Builder in Spokane. During the night we learned through a rumor spread through the train about leaving the train in Spokane, a Portland & Seattle dividing point and boarding buses. It wasn’t until approximately one hour before our arrival in Spokane we heard an official announcement through the PA by a conductor. From the time I first heard this rumor until Amtrak officially announced the new travel arrangements, more than twelve hours past. Between the lack of logistical planning in railroad crew and long delay in informing the passengers of early train terminus, I would suggest Amtrak management needs to get in the game and quit hiding behind this is a government run railroad system.
I’ve routinely read the complaints by many about the lack of sufficient funding of our present rail system and how it prevents us from having a first class alternative to air and bus transportation. I’m not buying into the excuse. If this were sufficient reason to create substandard execution and minimalist service than our military through it’s infantry would be only accomplishing a quarter of its mission and forgetting to take bullets to the battle. I know that we could place a higher priority on funding rail but why increase funds to something already mismanaged?
I would like to end this on a bright note and tell you about my first segment experience from Atlanta to Washington DC. An Amtrak employee named Mike stood up in each car and gave the same safety speech to the front and back of each eighty foot coach. He was thorough and humorous in his explanation of how we would need to quickly and calmly evacuate a coach should an emergency develop. He said no matter what, he would be the last person off the train and ensure that each passenger had evacuated. He told us that other Amtrak personnel need to be listened to as well because there are possibilities of stopping over bridge, water, or steep embankment.
In addition to the safety speech, he said we were entitled to a clean bathroom and if we were to find the condition of such sub-par to let one of the Amtrak conductors or assistants know the bathroom required cleaning. He also said we were entitled to a quiet ride and all passengers needed headphones for all media devices for private listening only. Finally, he thanked us for traveling on Amtrak; “you’re the reason I have a job”. It couldn’t have been said more clearly or sincerely and I thanked him afterward.
The Washington DC to Chicago run was also completed professionally and on schedule. Under no circumstances did I encounter an Amtrak employee with a bad attitude even though I’m sure toward the end of their day they were tired. Station personnel were also willing and able to answer my questions. Money alone doesn’t buy professionalism and I believe what I encountered during my trip was all that except as previously described.
- Amtrak’s overhaul of Union Station to cost $7 billion (wjla.com)
- Amtrak Plans Upgrades In Bid For High-Speed Rail (mysanantonio.com)
- PICS: Here’s What a Revamped D.C. Union Station Would Look Like (transportationnation.org)
- Amtrak 2.0: New York to D.C. in 94 Minutes? (treehugger.com)