News & Reviews News Wire Amtrak faces some holiday cancellations

Amtrak faces some holiday cancellations

By David Lassen | January 3, 2022

Severe weather, staff shortages are culprits

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Passenger train with freight locomotive in lead
Running 23 hours, 25 minutes late, the eastbound Empire Builder due in Chicago on Christmas Eve passes through Wauwatosa, Wis., on Christmas Day afternoon with a BNSF Railway ES44DC on the point. Weather issues and other problems led to a series of very late Builders during the holiday period. (Trains: David Lassen)

WASHINGTON — Although airlines cancelled thousands of flights, resulting in horror stories for stranded travelers, Amtrak was mostly able to keep its trains running during the Christmas-New Year holiday period.

There were some cancellations, though. While booked passengers were asked via email or text to choose a different train or travel another day and no advisories were issued, an Amtrak employee advisory obtained by Trains News Wire attributed annulments to “staffing shortages caused by the pandemic.”

Cancelled trains included:

— Overnight Boston-Newport News, Va., Northeast Regional trains 65-66-67 from Dec. 31 through Jan. 6.

— Washington-Springfield, Mass., Northeast Regional trains 136-143-146-157, Dec. 31-Jan. 2.

Silver Meteor from New York and Miami on Dec. 31.

— City of New Orleans from Chicago and New Orleans on Dec. 31.

Empire Builder from Seattle/Portland, Ore., and Chicago on Dec. 31.

California Zephyr from Emeryville, Cal., and Chicago on Dec. 31.

Crescent from New York on Jan. 1 and 4; from New Orleans on Jan. 1, and from Atlanta on Jan. 4. The Crescent is not running Mondays through Thursdays south of the Georgia capital Jan. 3-Feb. 17 during Norfolk Southern’s annual maintenance blitz.

Some one-day cancellations were likely caused by cascading delays that continued to worsen under harsh operating conditions, forcing multi-day trains to miss scheduled equipment turnarounds at endpoints.

The saga of the Empire Builder is an example.  Week-long subzero temperatures, heavy snows, and howling winds from St. Paul to Seattle played havoc with the train, which was periodically held en route for safety reasons or stuck behind disabled BNSF Railway freight trains on several occasions.

Locomotives on passenger train caked with snow on
Snow clings to the westbound Empire Builder’s three P42 locomotives at Minot, N.D., on March 1, 2007. The train normally opeates with three units during the challenging winter months. (Bob Johnston)

The eastbound Builder that was supposed to arrive in Chicago on Christmas Eve limped through Milwaukee on Christmas Day some 23 hours, 25 minutes behind schedule —having lost more than eight hours early in the trip because of a disabled freight train and steadily falling further behind. Westbound delays, mostly in Montana or Washington state, caused the Builder to leave its western terminals late beginning Christmas Day for six consecutive days, culminating in an 8-hour-late departure at 12:42 a.m. on December 30.

Former Rugby, N.D., Mayor Dale Niewoehner tells Trains News Wire the temperature in his community climbed from minus-27 Fahrenheit on Dec. 31 to minus-26 New Yeas Day. By then, the tardy eastbound was more than 14 hours late, departing Rugby at 1:09 p.m. It arrived in Chicago at 7:22 a.m. on Sunday, Jan. 2, 15 hours, 27 minutes late.

The California Zephyr was also affected when heavy Sierra Nevada snows after Christmas caused extensive interruptions that lasted until the Dec. 31 cancellation. While Union Pacific crews worked to clear Donner Pass, the eastbound Zephyr was held 9 hours at Truckee, Calif., on Dec. 26 and cancelled the following day, when its westbound counterpart was also halted at Reno, Nev. The westbound CZ that left Chicago on Dec. 24 arrived into Emeryville nearly 13 hours late after being held at Reno for 6 hours and losing another 7 hours over the pass.  

In the east, a highway grade crossing accident caused minor Auto Train delays to get much worse on Dec. 22, when the trains arrived at their Lorton, Va., and Sanford, Fla., terminals in the afternoon rather than at 9 a.m. By Dec. 23, the northbound train arrived at 10:35 p.m., pushing the sold-out southbound’s departure from Lorton to 3:28 a.m. It arrived at Sanford Christmas Eve at 10:20 p.m. By then, both Dec, 24 trains had been cancelled, which allowed a “reset” for on-time Christmas Day departures. Auto Train has been running mostly early or on time ever since.

8 thoughts on “Amtrak faces some holiday cancellations

  1. Of all the service disruptions cited, the one that’s the least forgivable is suspension of the Crescent between Atlanta and NOL. If there was enough mainline track capacity and operating flexibility, those trains could operate on the track(s) in the work areas not out of service. And I don’t tag NS for not expanding their capacity. As a private company they have a right to compromise their own service to shippers if that’s what they want to do. Our politicians and state DOTs think it the natural order of things that when a highway segment suffers from repeated congestion, well, we widen it. But to “widen” a railroad to accommodate the public passenger trains we wish to operate over it? Suggest that to Sen. Richard Durbin who has at times dumped on CN for delays to the four trains CHI-Carbondale on the largely single track route and see what kind of response you get.

    1. MARK – We’re both old enough to remember when the IC was double iron on that route. That was before EHH.

  2. Well folks, sometimes Amtrak saves the day. Despite what you may hear from airline proponents on this “TRAINS NEWSWIRE”, a brother of mine would have missed his own 80th birthday party had it not been for Amtrak. All flights had been canceled for 3 days due to a winter storm. I helped him book a seat on the Southwest Chief and he arrived in time to enjoy the party.

  3. And the Empire Builder delays continue this morning. Westbound #7 due into Seattle this morning is currently stopped at Merritt, WA (about 8 miles east of the Cascade tunnel). It is being held because an eastbound freight is stalled 4 miles east of Skykomish, a tree fell onto the 3rd unit this morning as the train was moving. It is snowing heavily currently and some units off another freight are getting ready to leave Gold Bar to head east to get MoW crews up to cut the tree away and pull the train back down the hill. #7 is likely to be stopped for a few more hours at least.

    1. Let me know the alternative on the regular flight I take with no Amtrak service anywhere close. An hour and a half direct flight twice a day, or for the same price a page full of one-stop or connections. Never a delay, never a problem, never anything less than really wonderful flight crews.

  4. You can’t depend on airlines either. You can drive, but weather can disrupt that too, in snow-prone areas. Depending on where you are going, you may have to plan an extra day or two. I am sure some people did not make it home for Christmas because of Amtrak and airline problems, and snow on I-80 at Donner Pass.

  5. In other words, you can’t depend on Amtrak. It’s not just snow, it’s not just COVID staff shortages, the Crescent gets shut down for days at a time for track maintenance. Who in their right mind would plan their travel around such a system? It’s bad enough to plan travel around one train a day. A four-day window of zero trains is a bit much.

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