This writer took the Lake Shore from New York to Chicago during this time of year, over ten years ago. Conditions were somewhat similar to two weeks ago. It was the coldest night that upstate New York had experienced in twenty years, and the entire railroad in the region came to a standstill, because of a broken rail near Syracuse. It took hours for a track crew to get to the affected area and repair the track, in sub-zero cold. The train lost more and more time, until it finally arrived in Chicago at 10:05 p.m., not a.m.; over twelve hours behind schedule. The crews did the best they could throughout the trip, and they performed well under highly adverse conditions. There was no food left on the train, but Amtrak had some subs delivered, to feed the hungry passengers and crew. There was blowing snow underfoot in the vestibules. The toilets did not work, because the water lines froze. Fortunately, the train stopped long enough at each station to give everybody “bathroom breaks” during the extra-long trip.We can lay some of that responsibility off on the leaner and meaner freight railroads, and the use of continuous welded rail. When there were maintenance crews based every twenty miles or so, and racks of 39 foot rail at every agency station, track restoration could be done more quickly.
Amtrak was not responsible for the broken rail, or the time it took to repair it. Amtrak also did what it could to provide some emergency rations when the regular food was gone, and Amtrak deserves credit for doing that. The other problems came with the equipment: diaphragms between cars with space that allowed blowing snow to enter, and water lines in the restrooms that froze because they were exposed to the cold.
It is now at least ten years later. The equipment has not changed, although it has gotten older. There is still room for blowing snow to get into the vestibules on the Amfleet II long-distance coaches, and there are still complaints about restrooms that must be bad-ordered when the water lines freeze. Nobody deserves the blame for these equipment failures except Amtrak. It should not be terribly difficult to retrofit cars with improved diaphragms or insulation to keep water lines in the restrooms from freezing. It may not be possible to do that on all of the long-distance cars in the Eastern fleet this year, but it should be possible to add these modifications to each car when it is taken into the shop for an overhaul. Amtrak has known for at least ten years that these deficiencies exist, and that they degrade the quality of a trip severely. There is no reasonable excuse for these deficiencies to continue to exist for this long.
I'd like to raise the possibility that contemporary technology is not as up to extreme weathers as older railroad technology was. Take the automatic doors on Amfleet cars (please). Lots of moving parts to freeze or fracture or otherwise make crews' work more difficult.
Can the Chicago maintenance base keep its varied array of cars running through the cold Chicago winter? Are the Amfleet cars which are used for the Lake Shore and other long-distance trains that originate in New York sufficiently winterized? The same question also applies to the Horizon and Amfleet cars that operate from the Chicago hub to places like Detroit and St. Louis.The point of the Chicago maintenance base was to replace inadequate coach yards maintained by The Milwaukee Road, for trains to the north, and the yards of The Pennsylvania Railroad and the Burlington for trains headed south. All Amtrak trains use a rebuilt yard where the Pennsylvania yard was. The Milwaukee and Burlington yards are bases for Metra trains laying over by day. As far as the Horizon cars go, those, unaccountably, do not have storm doors at the end, and Amtrak, to the extent possible, place an Amfleet car with a storm door at each end of a Horizon rake. Not pretty, but it keeps the elements out.
Amtrak cannot control winter weather or the overcrowding on host railroads that results from freight congestion, but it can control its maintenance practices and equipment utilization. Amtrak owes it to its customers to make sure that its management and maintenance practices live up to reasonable standards for the environment in which the trains operate. If Amtrak does that, we can all be sure that any winter-related cancellations or delays are not Amtrak’s fault. In that event, it will be time to look elsewhere, maybe toward the host railroads, for a solution.
Metra's performance during the coldest of the cold days has drawn the ire of Chicago Tribune editors.
No one expects flawless service during unusually severe weather. But frigid temperatures and piles of snow are not exactly freak occurrences in northern Illinois. By any reasonable standard, Metra has failed its customers.Perhaps so. But commuter railroads have long been aware of their foul weather friends, and the increased riding in the face of difficult operating conditions has long meant delayed trains and unhappy passengers. There's a different attitude among the railroads, and the Passenger Rail authorities, these days.
Those in charge acknowledge the problems, which they attribute to factors mostly beyond their control.
Boston and Maine Railroad advertisement, late 1940s.
Reproduced from page 115 of Fisher, Vanishing Markers.
Into the early 1950s, many Boston and Maine commuter trains were rakes of wooden coaches heated by a pot-bellied stove, hurried along by hand-fired Pacifics and Moguls, and on some routes signalled to proceed by a switch-tender running a fishnet float up a pole. Highball! (Yes, the man-cave will have models thereof.) Not terribly modern, but put a plow pilot on the Mogul in November and take it off at Patriots' Day, and it gets through.
Staff Metra, or Amtrak, or the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority at 1950 levels, though, and listen to the tax-payers carp.
Today was a school holiday, which I observed with a bit of train riding. I'm pleased to report that the Metra trains were running on time, or close to time, with full rakes of coaches, and that the arrival and departure boards at Union Station showed more Amtrakers on time or close to time than not. The switch heaters appeared to be in good order.