Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before…
January 12, 2024
By Joe Aiello / Director of Community Engagement + Organizing
It’s January. Dead of winter. There is a forecast of a significant snow storm, sub-zero temps, high winds – pretty miserable conditions all around – and Amtrak has already hit the cancellation button on a number of routes days ahead of any snow hitting the ground.
It seems, at least to even the most casual observer, that this has been happening more and more in recent years. Is it really just the weather? Is it staffing? The oh-so-reliable equipment? Are there some other dark forces from beyond the wall involved? (That’s in Canada, right?)
(An unnamed passenger waiting for the Empire Builder at Shelby… probably)
Now I was trying to find the “nuanced” route for my thoughts to really try to thread the needle between the reality of the horrible conditions and the justifiable frustration from the online community. For anyone who has watched any of my videos from the field, you know that goes right out the window once I get rolling.
Let me get this out right away – I absolutely share your frustration. Full stop. I practice what I preach and ride the train as much as I can. The Empire Builder is currently my “home” route and I have been stopped, delayed, canceled so much over the past year or so that I absolutely understand the idea of “Well, I’m never riding Amtrak again” from some newer passengers. In fact, I have had my train canceled on back-to-back weekends just this week due to the weather.
All that said, Amtrak is truly in a “damned if they do, damned if they don’t” situation here.
For example (and I know I joked and used them in the photo caption above), it is minus-29 degrees in Shelby, Mont., as I write this, with a real feel of minus-53 degrees. How could ANYONE ask someone to wait for a train in that weather? And, god forbid, that train gets stuck behind a disabled freight train that broke down due to the same conditions, or any other reason. What is Amtrak supposed to do then? Remote location, roads closed due to snow, and quite literal deadly air temps – then what? We end up in a nightmare scenario that needs to be avoided at all costs. And if they press on and something like that happens, the online brigade lights up Amtrak management for “deciding to leave passengers stranded.”
One of the comments I saw on a Facebook post on the cancellations was along the lines of “but they are canceling the River Runner!” Sure, I get that. While it is currently in the low 40s in St. Louis, one of the runs is an extension of the Lincoln Service coming out of the Chicago area, where they are dealing with snow AND gale warnings. Do I agree with the cancellation when the weather isn’t “as bad”? Not really. Could they still run on a portion of the route and get passengers where they need to be? Maybe. But, do I understand where there could be equipment and crew movement problems from areas where the weather sucks? Absolutely.
Speaking of social media comments, can we please stop with the “Well, the xxx train ran just fine in the 50s.” It really does sound like “In my day, the train had to go uphill in the snow without shoes in both directions to school!” Climate change is a very real thing, and I would like to think we care a lot more about passenger and crew safety these days.
Look, our bridges and roads are falling apart. We are WOEFULLY behind in funding. As we reinvest in infrastructure, the circumstances will change. We aren't there yet. Safety is crucial, but so is continuing to strive for what passengers need, especially in anticipation of such extreme weather.
Does Amtrak get a little “trigger-happy” at times? Yes. They are also not the best communicator in the heat of the moment, so they preemptively try to get ahead of things. Does the online rail community dive too quickly into conspiracy? Also yes. A friend of mine reminds me all the time that “two things can be true.” We are all in this together, and we need to use a little common sense when situations aren’t as cut-and-dried as we think they should be.
If you are currently in a spot where hell seems to be actually freezing over: please be safe and check in on friends and family.
I will see you on board…eventually.
"The Rail Passenger Association's recognition of the essential work done by SMART-TD members aboard Amtrak during this difficult period is appreciated. The Golden Spike Award serves as a testament to the compassion and dedication our conductors, assistant conductors and other workers exhibit constantly through times both ordinary and extraordinary."
Jeremy Ferguson, SMART-TD President
December 21, 2021, on the Association awarding its 2021 Golden Spike Award to the Frontline Amtrak Employees.