Running Late on Amtrak

You don't take Amtrak to anyplace a jet can take you if you are in a rush. Even from Boston to NYC, after taking into account the wasted time getting to and in the airports, flying is still usually faster than the train. But if you are on vacation and if your schedule is flexible, then the train can be a great part of an adventure. 

In July of 2017 we took the Lake Shore Limited from Boston to Chicago. For the first time in 12 trips, we missed our connection in Chicago due to lateness. The lateness was not due to any error on Amtrak's part, it was just an unusual combination of the things that can happen when you take a train:

  • In Utica, New York, we were delayed for about 4.5 hours because a torrential rainstorm had flooded the tracks and felled two trees. We had to wait for the trees to be removed, and then for the water to subside so the tracks could be inspected. 
  • After we were free to go, we had to go at a reduced speed until the tracks could be more thoroughly inspected the next day. We arrived in Buffalo almost 6 hours late.
  • By the time we got to Sandusky, OH, we were still behind schedule but we were making up lost time. We were about 4 hours late, so our fellow passenger who was to transfer to the Texas Eagle would surely miss her connection, and our friends who were bound for the California Zephyr might make it. 
  • But there was scheduked track work west of Sandusky. If the Lake Shore Limited had been on time, we'd have passed through before the work began. Instead, the men were working when we arrived, so we were put onto a different track to Toledo that added at least 90 minutes to the route.
  • Unfortunately for us, the new track was heavily used by freight trains. Unlike in Europe, Amtrak trains run on tracks owned by the freight companies and the freight trains get priority. For the rest of the day we slipped further and further behind schedule as freight trains took their scheduled slots ahead of us.
  • By Sunday evening were were getting hungry. We should have arrived at 9:45am CDT. The snacks in the Lounge Car were the first to go. When lunchtime came, the Dining Car was much depleted, but they struggled gamely on. By suppertime there was nothing left except some servings of the Braised Beef entree, which the enterprising Dining Car chef had stretched with potatoes into a savory beef stew with rice for the Sleeper Car passengers (meals are included with sleeper car fares). Lorna is vegetarian, so I asked for the rice in a separate dish and she had that while I ate the beef. What a sorry pass! 
  • The conductor, the sleeper car stewards, and the coach car attendants had no idea what Amtrak would do for us when we arrived in Chicago. This was the greatest problem of all.
  • We got into Chicago Union Station 9 hours and 42 minutes behind schedule. Everyone missed their connections. 
Amtrak's Bungled Response
  • When we arrived in Union Station, everyone was sent to the passenger service desk. It was a mob scene, and I fault Amtrak for handling this so poorly. It would have been easy to have one passenger service rep explain to everyone the basic plan, but instead everyone waited on line and heard the same thing in turn.
  • Everyone was given a $10 certificate to the Union Station food court, but... it was Sunday night and the food court was closed! The next day we learned that many places would not honor the vouchers. 
  • Everyone who missed a train was automatically updated to the next day's train, but we had to go through the passenger service desk to do it.  
  • Passengers who had ridden coach AND who needed to make a connections were allowed to sleep in one of the unused Viewliner Roomettes that were in the station waiting for their next train. It's a sub-optimal solution, but better than sleeping on the floor of the station.
  • Passengers who had been in sleeper cars were sent to a local hotel and given a taxi voucher for a specific cab company. 
  • We were in a sleeper. Our steward had little information, but he had heard about the sleeper car plan and not about the hotel plan. Staying in a sleeper that night was unacceptable to us, so I had reserved a hotel from the train with a non-refundable reservation - it remains to be seen whether Amtrak will make good on that expense. The taxi voucher was good. We did get to see more of Chicago than we usually do, so that was good!
  • The next day's Southwest Chief was naturally very crowded.
In the end an unfortunate and unavoidable situation was handled in some ways very well and in others ways very poorly. The worst of it could have been greatly alleviated if the Lake Shore Limited crew had been informed of the plans and disseminated that information before we ever arrived in Chicago.