Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Another crazy ride on Amtrak

I don't have a great record with Amtrak and the regional trains to Maryland over the past few years.  In October 2009 I had a long delay for "police activity" and a sick passenger in Wilmington, DE.  Then in December 2009 Penn Station lost power to the tracks for several hours, turning a three-hour trip into an all-day ordeal.  These problems are unusual, but what's not unusual is that the regional trains are routinely late or delayed for reasons unknown.  And I had another such experience this past Friday night.

I was supposed to take a 6:20 PM train from Penn Station to New Carrollton, MD, arriving at 9:20 PM.  When I got to Penn Station at 5:45 my train was already 30 minutes delayed.  Five minutes later the delay increased to 50 minutes.  The PA announcer said that our train would be in the station and ready for boarding by 7:10 PM.  I called my dad and told him that I'd be at least an hour late.  We boarded the train a few minutes after 7, but we did not leave on time.  As we sat on the platform at Penn Station the train conductor read what sounded like the entire information sheet for the train, covering oft-unmentioned items such as "there are bathrooms in each train car,""don't ride in the vestibules," "a wide variety of snacks are available in the cafe car," and "we hope you are having a lovely evening in New York and we apologize for the delay."  A woman across the aisle from me asked to no one in particular "when are we leaving?"

We finally departed around 7:30 PM.  Arriving at Newark, NJ a few minutes later, we sat at the platform there for at least five minutes, which was about four minutes longer than usual.  Around 9 PM, outside of Trenton, the lights went out in the train and we ground to a halt.  The train conductor said we'd lost power and that the engineers were trying to fix the problems but until they could do so, we were "dead in the water."  I started to get a bad feeling about the whole trip as I remembered another Amtrak train stuck on the tracks between Philadelphia and Baltimore during the December blizzard.  Another conductor came into our car to apologize for the delay and to tell us that we had a "helper engine" on the way to rescue us.  The power came back on a few times, only to go off again a few minutes later.  I tried to read my book by flashlight and not think about how bad things could get.  I'd had dinner, I had used the bathroom before the power went off, and I had several warm layers in my bag.

My fellow passengers were not as outwardly calm as I was.  The woman across from me continued her running commentary, possibly on her phone, though I think she was just talking to herself.  When the conductor apologized again and suggested that we call 1-800-USA-RAIL with any complaints, a man a few rows up called them.  He demanded action on this stalled train issue and wanted a full refund.  Apparently, they told him to call back once he reached his destination.  I don't think that was the answer he wanted.

The aforementioned helper engine appeared around 9:45 PM and towed us to Philadelphia.  The conductor told us that they would change engines in Philadelphia, requiring another delay.  Or we had the option of changing to the next Washington, DC-bound train when it arrived on the opposite platform.  But Amtrak didn't say how long the engine change would take.  The chatty woman said "I ride these trains every day.  An engine change takes a half hour or 45 minutes.  I'm leaving."  Everyone in my car began packing their belongings, except for the young couple behind me.  She and I had been discussing Infinite Jest and I considered staying where I was, since I was comfortable, already late and whoever was going to pick me up in New Carrollton would have to stay up anyway.  But when the next train appeared, the car emptied out except for this couple.  She said to her boyfriend "we'll have the car to ourselves.  We can make out."  I smiled at them and said "Now I'm switching trains.  Have a good night."  I found a seat on the other train and a few minutes later we were on our way.   I wonder how long it was before that train moved.

I arrived in New Carrollton at about 12:30 AM, over three hours late.  My girlfriend (who had driven all the way from Ohio for the weekend) met me at the station, and after the ordeal I'd been through she was a most welcome sight.  In retrospect, it wasn't the worst time I'd ever had on a train, but it wasn't any fun at all.  I don't think it's too much to ask that for my $150 I get to my destination as close to on-time as possible.  Three hours is definitely not close to on time.

Some of my friends suggested that I take the Acela next time, saying that the regional trains are always unreliable.  While the Acela doesn't seem to stop at New Carrollton, I might be able to manage going to Baltimore or BWI or even Union Station instead if I could work out the schedules.  So rather than abandon Amtrak entirely, I'll give that a try next time.  Otherwise I might take advantage of one of those rental car deals that keep popping up in my e-mail.  Or one of those DC buses that are ridiculously cheap.  But I think I'm done with the regional trains for a while.

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