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Sunday, September 4, 2022

When Amtrak Goes Wronger and Wronger and . . .

Last year I did an Amtrak trip across the country and generally had a pleasant experience. This year, not so much.

I chose to get on Amtrak's Cardinal train at Alderson, West Virginia. One of the main reasons for this is that Alderson is just before the start of a state park that is supposed to be very pretty and I though it would be a good way to start the trip. I arrive two hours early to find a station that isn't open despite a sign proclaiming it will be on train days. Then I went and hunted up the local police office and asked that they not tow my car while it's parked at the station. Then I sat and waited. And waited. And waited. When the train finally got there it was verging on two hours late which meant that it was dusk and there weren't any good views of the park. Trying to maintain an optimistic viewpoint, I figure I'll have another opportunity when I come back.

Leaving Chicago, our train stopped almost immediately because they were having problems with "the locomotives communicating with each other." I'm not sure what that means, but I do know that it neccesitated a stop later for further correction. I think they may have switched out locomotives.

We arrived at Sacramento several hours late. It was supposed to have been a ten hour layover starting in mid-day in which I planned to go do some sight seeing. We got there just before dusk and I quickly realized I did not want to be on the streets of Sacramento as it got dark. So, I spent several hours at the station with nothing to do.

On the trip from Sacramento to Eugene I got the joy of having the door to my room stuck open. All I had separating me from the folks walking up and down the tiny hall to the restroom or dining car was a curtain and even that left a two foot gap at the bottom. It was as though Amtrak wanted to give me the double bonus of both riding a train and camping. To be fair, the attendant tried to fix it and at one stop they even had a maintenance guy come on board to try to fix it. Also, the rooms were all full so pitching a fit wasn't going to get me a room with a working door.

Eugene to Portland went fine. As soon as we hit Portland they lined us up and got us onto the Empire Builder. It was very efficient and we left on time.

And immediately stopped. "Conductor, please come to car 1234." We sit there for a few minutes. "Ladies and gentlemen, whoever on car 1234 had bear repellant in their bag, it has exploded and we need you to come down to the luggage rack." This was followed a few minutes later by "Anyone in car 1234 who may be having breathing problems please let us know so we can get you medical attention." We then sat there for however long it took to clean up and air out the car. Finally, we started moving again.

Ten minutes later we stopped again. This time, the toilets were broken on one of the coach cars. They piddled around with that for a while and we got moving again. Later, we had to stop somewhere long enough for Amtrak's maintenance people to actually fix the problem. I'm not sure what coach passengers did in the meantime.

The next morning, I woke up with food poisoning. As always, it's hard to tell exactly what actually got you, but I think it was the "hippeas" which I bought from the train's snack store. They were puffed chick peas And when I woke up my mouth tasted like it was filled with the things and every belch smelled like them. I spent the rest of the morning either sleeping or making a mad dash to the restroom at the end of the hall. By afternoon I wasn't dashing to the end of the hall as often and I couldn't sleep anymore. Let me tell you, it is not fun getting jostled around constantly while your stomach is sore.
We arrived at Malta, Montana 3+ hours late. The attendant helped me by carrying my duffel bag out of the train, but I had to sling it on my back and march across the street to the Royals Inn. I checked in and then immediately crashed for a couple hours of glorious sleep without a train jostling my sensitive stomach. I had planned on using that afternoon and the following morning to walk around exploring the town. Things didn't work out that way. All I accomplished was walking to the convenience store a couple buildings down and a restaurant on the other side of the railroad tracks.

The train out of Malta was even later than the one which dropped me off there. When I got to my room, I told the attendant that I had a connection in Chicago that was expected to leave an hour after the expected arrival of this train. She told me they would make up time overnight. Later that night - after dark but before quiet hours - the train stopped and the conductor made an announcement that we were going to have to wait for two freight trains before we moved on. I went to sleep fairly certain that I was in trouble. 

The next morning I awoke to find that we were even further behind. I heard later that we got stuck behind a freight train that broke down. By the time we hit Minneapolis-St. Paul they were being honest with us and announcing that almost everyone was going to miss their connections. Finally - to add insult to injury - as we entered Chicago the train stopped for 10-15 minutes to let a commuter train pass. We arrived over 3.5 hours late.

We got off the train and were directed to a desk labeled "Missed Connections." There, a lady announced there were no hotel rooms available and we would have to sleep on couches in the lounge. For me specifically she said there were none that night and unlikely to be one for the next couple nights I will be trapped in Chicago. Then, she handed out $10 food vouchers and sent us all out to the food court - where we quickly discovered that the only restaurant still open was McDonalds. I grab my meal and head to the lounge for people with rooms. I sit down to eat and the lounge manager rousts me because this lounge is closing. I schlep back over to the regular waiting area, eat my McDonalds, and start trying to figure out how I am going sleep. At that point, they come get us all and march every one of us back to the first lounge I'd been in and told us to camp out there. I have to admit that after they dimmed the lights and turned off the elevator music I got a decent night's sleep. Not sure if that was exhaustion or the couch was that comfortable.

Now, all I have to do is survive two more days in Chicago's Union Station. I'm down to one clean change of clothes so don't be surprised if y'all see me in some ridiculously over-priced, gaudy tourist t-shirt before I get out of here. I'll add to this post as things get worse.

[addendum] Halfway thru day two - when I was the only person left waiting for a train - Amtrak got me a room at Swissotel. I've spent two days here now in a very nice room. Now I have to go back to the Amtrak station, catch an overnight train to Alderson, West Virginia at about 6 p.m., arrive late at Alderson (I assume based on experience), and then drive three hours to get home. God willing, I will make it to work on Thursday entirely unprepared for court (of course).

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