The Best Way to Deal with Amtrak Delays

SEATTLE – My brother-in-law, Peter, and I have almost completed our trans-continental rail journey, the last segment being our ride to Los Angeles today aboard Amtrak’s Coast Starlight.

We arrived here yesterday at 12:30 p.m. on the Empire Builder from Chicago, just about two hours late. It was one of those trips when the Amtrak crew really earns their money.

Not more than five minutes after leaving Chicago’s Union Station, the train abruptly slowed to a stop and a terse voice came over the PA system announcing that there was “a problem with the air”. Translation: an air hose had broken. (Air pressure holds the brake shoes away from the wheels and, when pressure is lost, the brakes are automatically applied.) After a delay of some 15 minutes, the parted hose was located and reconnected, and we were once again underway.

Ten minutes later it happened again. Apparently, two broken air hoses in the first half-hour of the trip was too much for one of the kitchen staff in the dining car. He threw screaming tantrum and walked off the train when we pulled into Glenview, Illinois … meaning, of course, that for the next two days other crew members would have to pitch in and cover his duties in addition to their own. Hardly an auspicious start: two mechanical breakdowns and a mutiny in the first 17 miles of a 2200-mile journey.

Later that night, there was another delay – this time about a half hour – caused by a coach passenger who had been trying to convince a conductor that he should be allowed to travel without a ticket. Overflowing with indignation, he finally left the train in Winona, Minnesota, ably assisted by a burly police officer on each arm.

Later, across most of North Dakota and into eastern Montana, the Builder repeatedly slowed to a crawl while rolling over stretches of track where the roadbed had been softened by flood waters caused by the melting of an unusual amount of snow.

When I woke up this morning, we were just leaving Spokane. While the schedule calls for a 2:15 departure, it was almost 5:00 a.m.

There was a very bright side to all of this, however: because we were so late, it was daylight as we passed through rugged western Washington, ran along the rim of the magnificent Columbia River gorge, and rolled passed the Grand Coulee Dam. Had we been on time, all that magnificent scenery would have slipped by us in the dark.

That good fortune reminded me that about 15 years ago, also on a Seattle-bound Empire Builder, I was having lunch with an English gentleman in the dining car somewhere on the Montana prairie. One of the conductors was passing through the train and stopped at our table to inform us that a freight train up ahead had broken a wheel and as a result we would probably be arriving in Seattle four hours behind schedule.

The Brit absolutely beamed. “Jolly good!” he exclaimed. “Then we really are getting our money’s worth, aren’t we!”