Trains Can Be Late. But So What?
When you travel by train, stuff happens. On one of my trips, a dining car steward on VIA Rail’s trans-continental train put it rather succinctly: “If you work for the railroad,” he said, ”you gotta be flexible.”
Amtrak’s long-distance trains often run late. That’s because they operate on track owned by the freight railroads, and there’s often a lot of congestion from all the freight traffic.
Passenger trains generally fare better in bad weather than the airlines do, but heavy rains can undermine the track or mudslides can cover them. And switches can freeze up in very cold weather.
But trains can also be delayed for reasons that are unusual, even bizarre. I was on the Coast Starlight a number of years ago and we were held up for forty minutes in Oakland, California, where the tracks run right down the middle of the street through Jack London Square. The reason for that delay? Someone had parked their can on the tracks, locked it, and gone shopping.
On an overnight train to Montreal years ago, we were delayed for an hour while the conductors wrestled an old mattress out from under the locomotive. It and a worn-out refrigerator had been put on the tracks by vandals.
I’ve been on two trains that hit cars at grade crossings—one in Savannah, Georgia, a dozen or so years ago; the other just last February a few minutes after the Lake Shore Limited had departed from Erie, Pennsylvania. Each one resulted in a 3-plus hour delay while authorities conducted their investigations. The first guy tried to beat the train across a crossing in a battered VW van; the second of those was a suicide.
Veteran rail travelers know delays can happen and they go with the flow. Years ago, I was having lunch in the dining car on the Empire Builder with a man from England when the conductor stopped by our table with news that a freight train had broken down up ahead of us.
“I’m sorry to tell you this,” he said, “but we’ll probably be four hours late getting into Seattle”.
The Brit absolutely beamed. “Jolly good!” he exclaimed. “We really are getting our money’s worth, aren’t we!”