Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Amtrak, You Got Some 'Splaining To Do

When I read the headline of today's story in the Grand Rapids Press about the aftermath of a 16-hour train trip from Chicago to Grand Rapids, images flashed through my mind of Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm's "Ricky" to Joe Boardman's "Lucy."

Amtrak messed up big-time this weekend when the eastbound Pere Marquette required 12 hours more than the schedule allots to cover the 176 miles between the two cities. Michigan officials are demanding answers about the causes for the delay, the welfare of passengers on board the train and why it left the Holland station with knowledge that the crew was about to be taken out of service.

One question they should also be asking themselves is why did they entered into a $6.4 million contract with Amtrak to provide passenger rail service that does not include penalties for poor performance. Overall, Amtrak trains in Michigan ran late 75 percent of the time this year, with a 10-minute allowance; on the Grand Rapids line westbound trains ran late 88 percent of the time.

The main culprits are track and signal problems and train interference on the two freight lines the trains operate over, CSX and Norfolk Southern.


Meanwhile, things back at Chicago Union Station got even grimmer as the Christmas holiday approached. Associated Press reports approximately 600 passengers waited up to 22 hours to board the Seattle-bound Empire Builder and New York-bound Lake Shore Limited.

"Many passengers weren't happy with how Amtrak dealt with the delays.

Sydney Cochran was heading to Rochester, N.Y., to visit family and complained that Amtrak didn't offer blankets, pillows or food overnight. She added that no one provided clear answers about when the train might leave, if at all.

"I'm furious," the 68-year-old said.

Barbara Gruenbacher of Manhattan, Kan., said she, her husband and four kids shivered through the night despite wrapping themselves in blankets as they slept in the station.

"The lack of heat is what put people over the edge," said Gruenbacher, who was also heading to New York to visit family."

While the delays can be blamed on snow, ice and sub-freezing temperatures, these conditions are nothing new. Chicago winter weather has been a fact of life for far longer than there have been railroads in the Windy City. One would think that after 37 years in business Amtrak would have a handle on how to cope with them.

On Amtrak's website, CEO Joseph Boardman issued a statement of apology.


  1. I just sent this to Amtrack's Customer Service Department and was told that it would be 4 to 6 weeks before I got a response. Let's see what they say!

    On 12/19/08, I purchased tickets for my niece and her 3 year old daughter for a trip from Chicago, IL to Grand Rapids, MI. When leaving the hotel to take the Metra to Union Station, I checked Amtrak's website to see if there were problems because of the weather and saw no problems. We arrived at Union Station in Chicago approximately 1 1/2 hours before the scheduled departure of 5:20 p.m. After scanning my email on the kiosk and getting the tickets, we found out that the train was canceled. There were people everywhere in the station and long lines everywhere. My niece stood in one line, I stood in another and my friend stood in a third to find out what we should do. The employees that we dealt with at the information desks were nothing less than rude to everyone who was stranded in the station. We were told to go and wait in the South Lobby and an announcement would be made regarding my niece's train. The four of us tried to make our way through the people and wait where we were told - this was difficult to say the least with a 3 year old in a stroller. At about 5:00 p.m. the Amtrak employees made an announcement that they would be putting the Grand Rapids travelers on busses and transporting them home. My niece made her way to the busses carrying a backpack and pushing her daughter in a stroller. On the way to the bus, she was pushed and shoved the entire way. Upon getting to the street outside of Union Station, there were Amtrak employees screaming very rudely at the passengers. None of the busses were marked with their destination and passengers had to guess at which bus they had to get on. When my niece found her bus, an employee of Amtrak pushed her and knocked over her stroller on the wet ground - with the baby in it!!!! Once my niece got her stroller righted and her daughter calmed down and out of the stroller, she asked the Amtrak employee if she could help her with the stroller. The employee said no that she could not help. My niece finally got on the right bus with her daughter. On the way out of Chicago, the bus driver slammed on the brakes causing my niece and her baby to fly out of their seats (there were no seatbelts on the busses). The baby hit her head on the seat in front of her causing her head to bleed and bruise. My niece feared that her baby may have gotten a concussion. There were no stops allowed during the trip for food or drinks - which are available on the trains from Chicago to Grand Rapids and luckily, my niece had juice and small snacks available for the baby. Needless to say, this was the trip from hell. My niece's 3 year old was excited to be riding a train and had been looking forward to the trip for weeks. What a disappointment for her. I travel Amtrak on a frequent basis - between either Grand Rapids or Battle Creek to Chicago - due to the convenience and ease of the travel, but after my niece's experience, I may reconsider this. I would like to request a refund for the cost of these tickets ($63.45 AAA rate). I look forward to hearing from you."

  2. What you should do, assuming you are a resident of the Grand Rapids area is contact Rep Vern Ehlers. If not, contact your representation at the federal level. Also, contact the Michigan Association of Railroad Passengers at: marprail@yahoo.com to see if they can direct you to someone who can make the situation right.