Stalled Amtrak train tests limits of passenger patience

Jovial mood turns dark as riders count hours, then abandon rails

September 18, 1999|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

Civility broke down slowly but surely on Amtrak train 110.

Stalled by Hurricane Floyd on the tracks south of Penn Station around noon Thursday, passengers at first chatted, worked on their laptops and played gin. An hour passed, then two. The muffins and sodas ran out. The power went off.

The mood turned particularly surly around 4 p.m., when cell phone batteries began to die. Then toilets overflowed. By 6, there was no stopping the businessmen in suits and women in high heels who jumped from the train and traversed a muddy bank to freedom in the West Baltimore neighborhood of Rosemont.

`Domino effect'

"It was my first time on a train, and it will definitely be my last," said Kari Smith, 29, of Washington. "They wouldn't say when they were going to let us off or if any food or water was on the way. After my second trip to the bathroom, I decided I would just hold it."

Blame it on a mudslide, power failures, falling trees, flooded rail -- one problem after another, all caused by Hurricane Floyd.

"Every time we'd begin to move a train, something else happened," Jim Waddington, an Amtrak spokesman, said. "It was a domino effect."

Amtrak tried to make amends by providing shuttle buses, hotel rooms and meals, and says it will reimburse other costs to passengers.

But Amtrak is getting little sympathy from many of the 1,000 passengers who were more than a little inconvenienced by being trapped for up to eight hours on six stalled trains between Baltimore's Penn Station and Halethorpe.

They compare their experience to the Northwest Airlines fiasco of last New Year's Eve, in which a planeload of passengers was stranded on a Detroit tarmac for 11 hours. That led to a federal investigation and a class action lawsuit.

"Amtrak has indicated that one of the problems was they were so overwhelmed with dispatchers and communications that they need to re-evaluate the system," said Jesse Jacobs, a spokesman for Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes. "If that comes out of it, we will consider it a success."

Inquiry sought

Sarbanes and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski will ask that the National Railroad Passenger Corp. conduct an inquiry.

Amtrak has been asked to submit a report to the Federal Railroad Administration explaining what happened.

Train 110 departed from Washington on time at 11 a.m., its journey beginning with a message from the conductor that passengers later found amusing.

"He said that regardless of the type of weather you have, traveling by train is always the most reliable way to go," recounted Megan Troy, a Washington lawyer traveling to New York.

At about noon, just short of Penn Station, the train slowed and halted.

A tree had fallen on power lines up ahead and there would be a 20-minute delay, passengers were told. The length of the projected delay then was doubled.

The problem was more serious than first thought, the conductor said.

At Amtrak, the news was not good. A mudslide had covered tracks in both directions. It could be late afternoon before it was cleared. Conductors were told to inform passengers.

"I know -- I was there when that message was communicated," Waddington said.

Communication bogs down

But instead, Amtrak's information pipeline to its passengers dried up. At first, most didn't much care. For a while, with their plans for the day falling apart, the mood became almost jovial.

"You could tell everyone was realizing they weren't going to work," Troy said. "People were having beers, whatever."

But around 3 p.m., food ran out. And the crew became visibly agitated as passengers demanded answers.

Rail workers told them they had no idea when the train would begin moving or whether the passengers would be let off.

As the cell phones went dead, the train conductor got in line to call his bosses and find out what was happening, said Troy. He couldn't get through.

A priest walked from car to car, appealing for calm. A call to Baltimore's 911 line went unheeded. Passengers were told to call Amtrak, they say.

Jumping ship

Just after 6 p.m., more than a dozen from one car decided to bolt.

They grabbed their suitcases, forced open a door, jumped 5 feet to the ground and made their way down a muddy hill to North Warwick Avenue.

"I'm not so athletic, but I didn't want to stay on that train any longer," said Smith, who was wearing high heels and hauling a shoulder bag and a pull suitcase. "I decided if others could do it, I could, too."

Most of the group was picked up by a church van, whose startled driver advised them it was a dangerous neighborhood and told them to climb inside.

Troy and Smith flagged down a police cruiser and the officer took them to nearby Bon Secours Hospital to call a cab.

At 6: 40, a "signal 10" went out to area cab drivers from their dispatchers for West Franklin Street at North Warwick -- meaning a bunch of people not near a phone needed rides.

One of the responding cabbies, Leon Paris, drove up to find about 20 other cabs lined up offering rides to the escapees. He picked up the next call -- to Bon Secours.

When he saw the two disheveled women with muddied suitcases, he figured out right away they had been on a stalled train.

"They looked liked they'd been in an accident," he said. And for $70, he drove them home to Washington.

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