Mother nature has not been kind to Amtrak over the past two weeks. First ice storms knocked out signals and forced suspension of rail service for several days on the Empire Corridor and Downeaster route. Then major snowstorms in the Pacific Northwest disrupted operations of the Empire Builder, Coast Starlight and Cascade Corridor.
But these pale in comparison to what happened to passengers aboard Sunday's Pere Marquette train from Chicago to Grand Rapids. The Grand Rapids Press reports the train reached its destination 12 hours late on account of the weather and railroad work rules. Keep in mind the 176-mile run normally takes four hours.
The ill-fated run encountered several delays outside Chicago and slogged into Holland, MI, at 5:30 a.m., down 7:10. The train departed for Grand Rapids, 25 miles away, but came to a stop one mile away because the crew had reached its hours of service limit. It would take three hours to get a relief crew and the train finally reached Grand Rapids at 10 a.m.
The pitiful performance begs a lot of questions, among them why did the train leave Holland when the crew knew it could reach Grand Rapids before clocking off?
So far the traveling public isn't abandoning Amtrak for the highways on account of cheaper gas, however, it remains to be seen whether it will tolerate this kind of performance. Lengthy service disruptions during winter storms have become commonplace. What happened aboard the Pere Marquette brings to mind what happened a few years ago when JetBlue's operations at New York's JFK Airport were fouled during a February storm. Founder and CEO David Neeleman knows all too well: He got canned.
At one time rail was considered the all-weather alternative. Trains managed to get through in the face of all kinds of weather conditions. I recall a westbound trip to Chicago aboard the erstwhile Three Rivers through a blizzard in Ohio six years ago. We arrived in Chicago 40 minutes early! Unfortunately, my return trip aboard the Capitol Limited ran four hours late.
Amtrak needs to work with its host railroads to improve reliability. Hopefully it will earmark some of its increased funding toward that goal and can pick up additional funds through the economic stimulus plan being considered in Congress. The aim should be doing what's necessary to get trains out of terminals on time and maintained well enough to make it over the road without mechanical breakdowns.
And, when crews run the risk of outlawing (reach their hours of service limit), it needs procedures to assure passenger safety and comfort and to expedite getting crews to stranded trains.
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