Blizzard 4, Builder 0.
Here in Washington, DC, at the annual Spring meeting of the Rail Passengers Association, there is a lot of “talking shop” among members. I must admit that I’m not really interested in most of the minutia being argued, but by far the main topic under discussion has been Amtrak’s decision to cancel a total of four departures by the Empire Builder.
The trains affected were eastbound departures from Seattle and Portland to Chicago on April 12 and 13, and trains leaving Chicago on April 13 and 14 headed for the West Coast. The reason given was a forecast of severe blizzard conditions in the Dakotas, Minnesota and Wisconsin, but it’s hard to overstate the problems these cancellations created.
Mostly it was passengers who were inconvenienced, all of whom either had to find alternate transportation or wait three days when the Builders resumed service. But the cancellations caused problems for many crew members, too–dining car staffs (a half dozen for each train), car attendants, conductors and engineers. And then there’s the issue of lost revenue and the extra expense of accommodating all those inconvenienced passengers. ka-ching, ka-ching!
(A personal note: I was booked on the Builder out of Seattle on April 11th, the day before they annulled those four trains).
But here’s the thing: No one can figure out why Amtrak made the decision to cancel those four trains! BNSF is the host railroad over whose tracks the Builders operate, but they weren’t about to take the blame. In fact, the railroad issued a press release saying, in effect, that they were ready and prepared with men and equipment to deal with the storm and make sure the passenger trains got through.
One of the sleeping car attendants said he had been working the Empire Builder for many years and had never heard of the train being cancelled because of winter weather. Not once. “We may have come in a bunch of hours late,” he said, “but we always got there!” Then, after a pause, he shook his head and added, “Of course, we never had someone from an airline running things before.”