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Sunday, January 02, 2011

Ten minutes to spare

Your blogista reports on her journey.

Clark Fork, Montana
New Year's Eve.

By now the train was thirteen hours behind schedule, and the passengers were on the verge of becoming unruly, especially after the conflicting announcements concerning free food. The crew held a series of meetings in the dining car and decided to offer redeemable vouchers for those who had paid for breakfast, and to offer a car-by-car lunch call for all passengers, on-the-house. There was an implication that those who had gotten a free breakfast would skip the free lunch, and this was mostly honored. We rolled into Libby, Montana, and carloads of passengers trooped back and forth through the train to the dining car or stood around outside in brilliant zero-degree sunshine while the train waited for a replacement crew.

There was much grousing about the blown schedule and the wait for a crew, but none of this was Amtrak's fault. This passenger system runs on trackage owned by corporations that are hostile to Amtrak, and they give priority to the passenger trains grudgingly and under protest. Freight is their be-all and end-all; cost-cutting is on their minds. Track infrastructure and freight engines are under-maintained. Also for many years, privately-owned railroading relied on a lot of overtime. Exhausted crews made fatal mistakes; so now it is Federal law that a crew must stand down after a full shift and not do overtime, even in quasi-emergencies.The combination of these circumstances is a constant stream of breakdowns of freights, rails, bridges, communications systems, all of which run afoul of the no-overtime rule, putting passenger trains farther and farther behind.

Also, Amtrak owns equipment that should be replaced as well, and they can't afford to. So the burnt-out power unit in Chicago put us three hours late, the burnt-out BNSF freight power unit at East Glacier added another eight hours, and the overextended train crew's stand-down requirement added another hour. The Empire Builder could no longer hope to make any kind of connections for the eight hundred or so passengers aboard. They ordered up a fleet of buses to meet us at Spokane at sunset; we were to disperse like a flock of quail in all directions, most to either Seattle or Portland in the middle of the night.

Lake Couer d'Alene, Idaho
The bus drivers were very aware of the state of the passengers and gave us every consideration. Everyone was fed another free meal -- Kentucky Fried Chicken mini-boxes -- and we Portland quail were shuttled down the Columbia Gorge in the gathering darkness with a minimum of fuss or discomfort. The end of all this, for some, however, was to be taxis and motels while figuring out a strategy for continuing a blown journey.

Risa thought she might be one of these. She has a son and a daughter in the vicinity, but the hour was getting late and historically these kids are party animals on New Year's Eve. Would anyone be home? If she could stay overnight, Beloved could come and get her and this would combine nicely with the late Christmas planned for the weekend with the kids anyway. She placed a tentative phone call.

"Oh, you bet. Eleven o'clock at Union Station? We'll be there."

Risa got "home" to be with her children to ring in 2011, with ten minutes to spare.


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