Late Trains: A Fact of Life.
Some twenty years ago, I was heading west on the Empire Builder and having lunch in the dining car with a delightful gentleman from the U.K. He was taking six weeks to see the U.S., all by Amtrak.
Just as we were finishing our meal, a conductor came through the diner and stopped at our table. “I’m sorry to tell you this,” he said, “but there’s a freight up ahead with a broken wheel on one of the cars. They’re working on it, but it’s going to be some time before we get moving again. As of now, we’re probably going to be four hours later into Seattle.”
My British table mate positively beamed. “Jolly good!” he said. “Then we really are getting our money’s worth, aren’t we!” As far as he was concerned, we were going to get four additional hours of train ride at no extra cost.
When crossing the country on one of Amtrak’s long-distance trains, we would all be well advised to adopt the Brit’s attitude. It is an indisputable fact that long-distance trains often arrive several hours late and, most of the time, the cause is beyond Amtrak’s control.
The list of reasons why a train runs seriously late is almost endless, although the freight railroads giving priority to their trains on their track is by far the most common. Furthermore, when problems occur, they often often compound to make the situation worse. For instance, by the time a work gang gets the boulder removed from the tracks, the operating crew—the engineers and conductors—have reached their legal time limit and have “gone dead”. That means Amtrak has to locate a new crew and have them delivered to the train. That can take additional hours.
When putting together a trip that involves a long-distance train, plan on the train being late! Be very wary of making connections—and not just from one train to another. What if your train to Los Angeles is so late you miss a World Series game or a Bruce Springsteen concert? Worse, what if you miss an important family event—a wedding or a funeral—because you were counting on your train being on time or close to it?
And so my best advice continues to be: Don’t take a chance. Add a day to your schedule, spend a night in a hotel, and continue on the next day relaxed and refreshed. It beats the hell out of all those alternatives!