Firefighters tend to disabled Amtrak train in Rockville, MD
(Amtrak’s Capitol Limited train from Washington, DC to Chicago follows the historic B&O line through the Potomac Valley. A passenger’s recent holiday train trip highlights the need to upgrade passenger rail service.)
By Eric Klein
As a native Maryland millennial, I’ve crawled through my share of congested holiday traffic. This season, I wanted to avoid crowded highways and airports by taking Amtrak, which offers spacious seating conducive to both reading and sleeping. Unlike air travel, you can walk directly to your train with your luggage without the hassle of TSA security. Traveling by train also has a low carbon footprint, which aligns with the growing demand for sustainable transit.
My pre-Thanksgiving rail trip illustrates the current pitfalls and the problems Amtrak has faced. Currently, staff are forced to work with outdated equipment, thus setting up a perfect storm of mechanical failures. Additionally, many routes are too inconvenient to compete with other forms of transportation. With billions in backlogged repairs, Amtrak too often falls short of its potential. Plenty of travelers like me are ready to jump on passenger rail. The recently signed infrastructure bill cannot come soon enough to modernize American rail travel, focused on intercity passenger needs (congratulations Rail Passengers Association for effective advocacy).
On the Saturday before Thanksgiving, I rode the Capitol Limited from Washington’s Union Station to Toledo, OH. My destination was Columbus, a 2 and a half hour drive from Toledo. I was not deterred that Amtrak doesn’t go to Ohio’s state capital and largest city. I planned to take a Greyhound bus from Toledo to Columbus to see relatives and deliver holiday gifts.
Soon after our on-time departure from Union Station, I noticed an acrid smell and hazy air. Then the power went off, and emergency lights said, “TOILETS CLOSED.” The conductor informed us that the handheld ticket scanners were broken, so they would not be checking tickets. Maybe they would have checked tickets another way, but they had bigger problems to address. The next announcement informed us of a small fire underneath the dining car, which had also caused the power outage. We were told that firefighters were on their way and would meet us at the next stop in Rockville, MD.
In Rockville, firefighters dealt with a small fire under the dining car while several passengers abandoned the train, fearing major delays. An Amtrak attendant told me the source of the fire was probably dried leaves on the track that had been ignited by the train. No train cars were evacuated but passengers were hungry for information. We were told, “This is not a good start. We do not take this situation lightly.” Ninety minutes later, we rolled out with power on-board restored and an unusable dining car.
However, the power failed again, forcing another unplanned stop south of Frederick at Point of Rocks station. Apparently, the fire had damaged the train’s circuitry so that all cars behind the dining car were without on-board power. The conductor announced he was taking the train to Brunswick Yard to “await further instructions.” Fortunately, supplementary support staff came to our aid at Brunswick Yard. Passengers waited on-board for hours while the train was disassembled and then reassembled with the dining car in the rear. While we waited, coach passengers received free Cheez-It snacks. After the defective dining car was repositioned to the back of the train, we were ready to roll once again (and flush those toilets!).
Back-to-back train delays meant I missed my bus connection in Toledo. The Greyhound bus kiosk at Dr. Martin Luther King Plaza was vacant when I arrived, so I gave up hope of catching a bus. Outside it was cold and rainy, but I had nowhere to go. Reluctantly, I called my brother and asked if he could come pick me up. While he drove from Columbus, I had plenty of time to analyze this holiday travel adventure.
Amtrak needs to catch up on deferred maintenance and expand intercity passenger routes. A 2019 report said Amtrak’s repair backlog exceeded $33 billion, a “historic low point for the passenger service,” lamented rail publication RT&S. Passing the Infrastructure Bill was a big step. Now, passenger-rail advocates must make their voices heard, to assure implementation of the multi-billion-dollar Amtrak provisions. The January 26 webinar hosted by the Rail Passenger Association provides a great primer on the grant process. Whether you’re a local official or a passenger-advocate, it’s important to understand the mechanics of who is eligible to apply for these funds, what that application process looks like, and the criteria the FRA will use to evaluate project submissions.
As an experienced passenger aboard BritRail in the U.K. and El Chepe in Mexico, I can attest that passenger rail in America has only one way to go: up. Thankfully, it’s headed in that direction. In July, Amtrak announced a plan to revitalize nearly 40 percent of its rail fleet by 2031, replacing cars that are 40 to 50 years old. Travelers deserve better than aging trains that break down. If we’re serious about providing modern rail service, it will take more than complimentary Cheez-Its to overcome fires, power outages, and missed connections. Rail service already exceeds other forms of transportation in comfort and sustainability but, to attract more riders, it has to improve. Specifically, U.S. rail needs more direct, single train routes with modern, serviceable train cars. These trains should include high speed Wi-Fi and something better to eat than a microwaved hot dog.
In order to make these improvements, Washington officials need to get the allocated money where it’s meant to go. Columbus is the second-largest U.S. city without intercity rail. The Franklin County Convention Facilities Authority recently unveiled a plan for a proposed $23 million station. Amtrak would pay for most of it using money from the federal infrastructure bill that was signed in November. What’s next: Amtrak must get the state’s authority to launch passenger rail service (connecting to Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Dayton). If they do, my next trip through Potomac Valley will be less eventful.
I’d love to get back on the Capitol Express. Despite everything that happened, I still believe in the serenity of rail travel. Now that the much-needed funds are working their way through the pipeline, there’s hope for the future. Imagine eating a nice meal on an Amtrak train while getting some work done or reading a book. As the sun goes down behind a part of America you’ve never seen before, you fall asleep and wake up at your destination. That’s the beauty of rail! When all goes well, it is an experience I’d recommend to all my friends and family.
(Eric Klein is a 2008 graduate of Einstein High School in Kensington, MD. He is Vice President of Organic Mechanics, a soil company based in Modena, PA.)