Why Is Bad Weather in January a Surprise?

Those of us involved with NARP—that’s the National Association of Railroad Passengers—are united in our efforts to serve as advocates for rail passengers and to advance the cause of passenger rail throughout the U.S. And that includes all passenger rail: commuter trains, transit systems, buses to provide connectivity … not just Amtrak.
If fact, if there’s one thing that raises our collective hackles, it’s the old canard that NARP is just Amtrak’s lapdog. We don’t hesitate to let the brass at Amtrak hear about it when we think they should be doing things in a different way. What we don’t do is call a press conference and make a big public stink. There are plenty of people—Congressman John Mica, for instance—who are always eager to do that. Besides, it’s just not productive. Instead, one of the senior staff people in NARP’s Washington Office will pick up the phone, call the appropriate Amtrak executive, and quietly and calmly say, “WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU THINKING??”
OK … so I exaggerate. But the temptation to let fly is surely there when we hear about incidents like the problems with Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited the other night. The eastbound train is scheduled to leave Chicago at 9:30 p.m. for New York City and Boston. However, because of what was described as “mechanical problems caused by cold weather”, train 48 departed—finally!—at 11:00 the following morning.
The weather was indeed awful and awful weather can cause awful problems. Toilets freeze, heating systems fail, freight obstruction worsens. Stuff happens … we know that. But it’s January! It’s winter! And winter happens every year!
Last winter, also a bad one, Amtrak told NARP that they had a plan in place to deal with bad winter weather this year. There wasn’t much evidence of any plan the other night. The Lake Shore finally left Chicago’s Union Station about 8:00 a.m., but stopped after just a few minutes and returned to the station. The reason? A replacement operating crew—engineers and conductors—was needed. Clearly, that was something that should have been anticipated. Instead, it added another three hours to the ordeal of 170 passengers.
Last I heard, NARP is going to ask Amtrak for a formal explanation. I’ll bet it’s a doozie!