DC Trawler

Amtrak stinks

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Oh, hello. How was your weekend? Mine was terrific, up to a point. I am now going to vent about that point. If you don’t want to read it, go do something else. How does that sound?

I live in DC these days, and this weekend I went up to a family wedding in Connecticut. Amtrak goes up to Old Saybrook, just a few miles from where the wedding was held, and I hadn’t taken Amtrak in a long time. So I figured, why not? I’d heard they’d made a lot of improvements. Hell, Biden raves about it all the time.

The trip up there was perfect. The train was right on time, and after a 6-hour ride, it showed up at our destination maybe 5 minutes late. In the meantime, I had a nice big comfy seat that reclined way more than a coach plane seat, a place to charge my phone, WiFi (which will enter the story later), the whole bit. I was pleasantly surprised. I even started thinking about possibly taking Amtrak back home to Indy over Christmas.

Fast-forward through the wedding and the attendant drunken frivolity with my extended family, which was great. My train from CT back to DC showed up at 5:15 Sunday evening. Home by 11:25, in bed by midnight. Perfect.

Or… maybe not so much.

We stopped in New Rochelle around 7 or so, and we just sat there at the station for a long time with nobody getting on or off. At least a half-hour. Nobody was telling us much, and what little information we got was coming over the PA, which wasn’t working.

Eventually, a conductor came through and told us that there was a problem with a drawbridge ahead of us, which wasn’t closing properly. Once that got fixed, we’d be on our way. I, and most of the other passengers I’m sure, immediately set to checking Google Maps, which showed that it was the Pelham Bay Bridge holding us up.

A little while later, we were told that people going to NYC could get off at New Rochelle and make other arrangements. A few people did, but immediately after that, we were told that the drawbridge was back down and we’d be moving.

Which we did. For a few miles. Then we stopped again. In the middle of nothing. I could see what turned out to be I-95 on my right, but otherwise it was just pitch blackness outside.

That’s where we spent the next 4 hours.

It turned out there was a HuffPo guy on the same train, Ahmed Shihab-Eldin, and of course he was tweeting too. And of course, to him the problem was that we’re not throwing away enough tax money on Amtrak:

Yeah, that’s it. The shutdown did it. Which the Republicans caused, even though they didn’t. Whatever.

So there we all were, stuck on this train in the middle of the tracks, with no way to get off and nowhere to go if we did. I just sat there patiently and took advantage of the on-board WiFi to communicate with the outside world. I tried to made the best of it:








Eventually, another conductor came through all the cars and told us that while the Pelham Bay Bridge was lowered, it wasn’t “locked.” The rail wasn’t connected properly, so we’d derail if we tried to cross it. That would be a little worse than sitting on a train for hours sending out snarky tweets, so for that much I’ll give Amtrak credit. Thank you, Amtrak, for not plunging us all into the bay. It was only a metaphorical train wreck. Two thumbs way, way up!

We were told that we couldn’t back up to the New Rochelle station because “that’s not how it works.” And even if we could, there were other trains behind us.

At one point in this exchange, a woman of a certain age, a pushy New Yorker*, started freaking out at the conductor. “We’ve been here for three hours,” she kept repeating, as if the rest of us couldn’t tell time. I actually started to feel some sympathy for the conductor, who apparently was expected to pick up the train on her shoulders, spin it around, and push it back to the station. But mostly I just tried to figure out which one of them I hated more at that moment.

Another woman ventured back from business class to coach in order to whine at the same conductor: “We’re paying more money, and yet we’re not getting any service at all!” I openly laughed at her. You know how those One-Percenters are.

A few hundred years later, they told us that another train would be hooking up to ours and pulling us back to the New Rochelle station. From there, a “rescue train” would take us to Grand Central, and from there we’d have to make our own way to Penn Station, where we could take the next available train to points south.

Bloomberg News noted this footnote in the history of Amtrak’s failures, and of course there’s a false claim from the Amtrak spokeswoman:

The Amtrak train service between Boston and New York City’s Penn Station is halted as the moving bridge at Pelham Bay in the Bronx north of Manhattan is stuck open, said Christina Leeds, an Amtrak spokeswoman.

Passengers on Amtrak train 165, halted near New Rochelle, N.Y., are being transferred to the Metro North commuter rail operated by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to complete their journey to Grand Central Station. They will then be transported to Penn Station, where Amtrak originates, Leeds said.

No. Nope. If they provided transportation to Penn Station, they forgot to tell us. I ended up walking it, which was by far the most pleasant part of the trip. It was my first time in NYC in a couple of decades, and Midtown at 1 AM on a Monday is quite nice. I got turned around a couple times, even with the help of Google Maps, but a couple of beat cops gave me directions and were really quite helpful. Much more so than the sullen, hostile Amtrak employees at Penn Station. (There’s probably a lesson in there somewhere.) Thanks, NYPD.

So from Penn Station, I got to wait a few more sleepless hours until they herded us onto the 3:00 to DC. I got to Union Station about 7, and I finally got through my front door 45 minutes later. Only 8 hours late, without a wink of sleep. If I was [COUGH COUGH] years younger, it would’ve been an adventure. But I’m not, and it wasn’t.


But at least Amtrak has mastered social media:


There were a few dozen more like that.

The moral of the story is: Amtrak just gave me a preview of Obamacare.

  • Long waits
  • Incomplete, contradictory information and general incompetence
  • Perfunctory excuses and semi-apologies (“I’m sorry, this is just what they’re telling me“)
  • The overwhelming attitude that they’re doing you a favor by allowing you to pay them for such wonderful service
  • And most of all, a complete lack of accountability

Nobody will get fired over this. And nobody cares, except to use it as an excuse to get even more tax money out of your pocket. Welcome to Utopia.

Amtrak? They should rename it Obamatrak.

This is why I never leave the house.

Update: I forgot yet another Obamacare parallel. The conductors gave us an 800 number to call so everybody would quit bitching at them. I didn’t bother trying it, but according to several people in my car, it was just a busy signal. At least it didn’t send you to their website, which would then send you back to the phone number…

Update: And in another display of Amtrak’s mastery of Twitter, they’ve started the #AmtrakStories hashtag. I was more than happy to participate.

Wish me luck!

Update: Commenter Jon notes below…

Your problem was — in terms of anyone in New York City media being concerned about it — the Pelham Bay Bridge is south of the split where Metro North’s New Haven trains come off the main line and connect up with the Harlem line to the west for the final trip into Grand Central.

If the bridge had been in a place where it actually affected commuters to the northern New York suburbs, you would have had all the area papers and TV stations on the case, and mentioning this was the third clusterfark on the New Haven line since mid-July (I’ve never been stuck there, but I did have a lovely four-hour experience stuck on a Metroliner near New Brunswick during Amtrak’s early years one Easter Sunday night, so I sympathize with your ordeal and can tell you, they were just as informative and helpful about the problem 40 years ago as they are now).

*Pardon the redundancy.

Tags : treacher
Jim Treacher