U.S.: The shameful defeat of Amtrak by Winter weather in Virginia

By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; January 8, 2022

It was a dark and stormy night – actually a dark and storm day and night as an unusually severe winter snowstorm enveloped much of the east coast from Virginia northward on New Year’s weekend 2022.

An already chaotic air travel system was in tatters; flights were cancelled due to a myriad of problems from lack of crews due to COVID to chronic understaffing to weather delays.

Interstate 95 in the Fredericksburg, Virginia area (paralleling the CSX mainline between Richmond and Washington) had a 50 mile stretch of highway shut down due to the storm and hundreds of cars and trucks were stranded where they stood on the road. Americans being Americans, drivers and passengers banded together, shared food and water and took measures to stay warm. Thankfully, no one was hurt, and no lives were lost.

Then, of course, there was the outwardly shameful performance of America’s Railroad, Amtrak.

Trains were stranded due to trees down over tracks. Fortunately, in most cases, trains were able to be positioned at station locations such as Lynchburg and Richmond. Unsnarling the mess practically took an act of Congress.

In these modern times, commentators have wondered why the Commonwealth of Virginia did not do more on a quicker basis to help stranded motorists on I-95. Eventually, they did, but only after too many hours of inaction.

Amtrak has been running trains for over half a century now. A reasonable person should be able to presume in that period of multiple decades Amtrak would have previously experienced at least one other similar snowstorm, and then proceeded to create an emergency services plan to meet the humanitarian needs of its passengers and employees.

That doesn’t appear to be true.

Onboard toilets overflowed, causing serious health hazards. While the locomotives kept feeding head end power to the consists thus allowing for heat and electricity, most likely the wastewater tanks on the cars became full, not allowing toilets to be flushed. Did no one care enough or think to call a “honeywagon” service to pump out the full wastewater tanks? It’s the same process used for recreational vehicles and buses with restroom facilities. Certainly, someone, from somewhere, even if they had to drive a while to reach stranded trains could have solved this problem.

Diners and café cars ran out of food. It was angelic local residents who provided relief, as if they were helping refugees.

Other horrors took place, too, and overall, a combined chain of bad decisions and inaction only made matters worse for passengers stranded on trains.

Some will inadequately lament “but it was a holiday weekend. There was nothing to be done.” Really? When the health of passengers and crew is in a questionable state, what does it being a holiday weekend have to do with anything?

Here’s a serious question: Are the train and engine and onboard services employee unions taking any steps to protest this barbaric situation? The Crescent and Auto Train were two of the trains stuck in this mess. News reports said some Amtrak employees became testy with passengers when they were left alone as frontline employees dealing with passengers but had no ability to solve problems.

On long distance trains OBS employees are scheduled for very little “down time/sleep periods” while on the road. Most likely the OBS employees were a combination of tired, hungry, and frustrated just like the passengers, yet they were the “face of Amtrak” at the moment and were the immediate recipients of understandable passenger ire.

Where was Amtrak’s emergency response plan? Amtrak has a new president and CEO that is allegedly a Whiz Kid at running Amtrak the right way. So far, not so much, as of New Year’s Weekend.

Amtrak’s member Class I and regional freight railroad brethren who, just as Amtrak, are all members of the Association of American Railroads, each have in place an emergency contingency plan for every scenario, from an untamable snowstorm to hurricane response. For all of the AAR members, Amtrak carries the most precious cargo ‒ people ‒ and a rational person would think emergency response and recovery for passengers and crews would be a top priority.

Common carriers have a duty to provide for those in their care. It appears this never occurs to Amtrak. This is often what happens when there is no competition; just a single government-owned entity that continually demonstrates they even have contempt for their greatest benefactors, member of Congress, who provide annual funding, now continually in the billions of dollars.

Yes, an airline will strand you at an airport and not always provide you with accommodations other than a hard airport terminal floor to sleep on. But they will not endanger your health with non-working toilets or no access to food or drink.

Remember, under the Amtrak manager bonus system, employees are rewarded for saving budget money, not increasing sales or revenue. Apparently, that system seems to be alive for this horrific scenario.

The reality is, if Stephen Gardner is unable as the new President/CEO to run a company properly and humanely for the benefits of the traveling public and Amtrak employees, then the Amtrak Board of Directors made a very bad decision to hand him the reins of the company.

For those who are geographically challenged, much of this horror took place in Virginia, just a relatively few miles south of Amtrak headquarters in Washington, D.C. and the overstaffed and overfunded Northeast Corridor. This seems to demonstrate that the NEC really stands for NEC – Nothing Else Counts.

Virginia’s two United States Senators have written a letter to Amtrak demanding to know why Amtrak did not have a better response. That is a good start. More Senators and Members of Congress need to demand a higher level of accountability from Amtrak.

For this entire, unwelcome mess, shame on Amtrak. Shame on Stephen Gardner. Shame on the Amtrak Board of Directors for giving him the top job. Before this goes any further, it’s time for another top-down housecleaning at Amtrak.

Congress, do your job. Amtrak Board of Directors, do your job. Stephen Gardner, please find a new place to work.

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