Recently, my friend Joe contacted me about a scary predicament with an Amtrak train ride back from New York Penn Station – it’s something I’ve never experienced before, but I asked Joe to write up his experience to share.
I received a last-minute opportunity to attend yesterday’s (Thursday, April 6) taping of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Having attended these before, I highly recommend the experience of attending a late-night show taping, especially if you’re around (or planning to be around) New York City (The Late Show, The Tonight Show, Late Night, and most other shows of this ilk) or Los Angeles (Jimmy Kimmel Live!, The Late Late Show), for many reasons, not the least of which is your appearance on national television. While I could go on and on about that experience, this isn’t the forum to do so.
Given my proximity to New York (I’m in a Philadelphia suburb), I opted to travel by Amtrak. I booked a ticket on the Northeast Regional from Trenton to New York’s Penn Station and returned to Trenton the same day by that evening’s Acela Express. I’ve always considered Amtrak to be a reliable form of transportation, especially when the weather isn’t as great as it could be (in fact, it was raining for much of the day throughout the I-95 corridor, so I ran into many people who were taking Amtrak to make up for their cancelled flights), and the Northeast Regional route to be the most reliable given its use by commuters between major urban hubs.
I got off the train at Penn Station, walked up to the Ed Sullivan Theater, and saw that night’s taping. Then, after a quick dinner at Angelo’s next door, I walked back to Penn Station, and this is where the trip got, to put it nicely, interesting.
We stopped at Newark Airport, then began the trip back to Trenton. Eventually, the conductor got on the P.A. and told us that we’re approaching Trenton and if this is your stop, gather your belongings. I went to the Cafe car and grab a ginger ale for the car ride home. Then the conductor got back on the P.A. and says we’re approaching Trenton. I got ready to disembark.
Funny thing, though: the train never showed any sign of slowing down.
I saw water outside, which I thought was weird. Someone nearby said that he saw the parking garage at Trenton, though I did not. Finally, someone asked me if the train missed the stop. I took out my phone to check our present location, and it turned out we were on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River. By all indications, the train missed our stop.
I left to hunt down the conductor to find out what’s going on, and the conductor confirmed that, yes, the train blew past the stop and was proceeding to Philadelphia. When I asked what happened, he gave an explanation that suggested that the driver wasn’t paying attention. I was able to portray a calm face, but the experience was rather scary. For one, my car was still at Trenton. For another, and perhaps more importantly, how is it possible for a train driver to blow past a station he’s supposed to stop at‽ I was on a train moving at 100+ miles per hour with very little trust in the driver of the train, and I imagine the 20 or so people who were also supposed to get off at Trenton (some of whom were Amtrak employees) felt similarly.
Now what happens in these highly rare situations is that the train is to stop at the next scheduled station, let off both sets of passengers, and Amtrak is to get the passengers whose stop was missed on the next train back to that stop; Amtrak will hold the appropriate train should this occur. (Passengers who were getting on would have to wait for the next train to arrive that would take them in that direction.) In my case, that meant getting off at Philadelphia, turning around, and getting in line for the 90 Palmetto back to Trenton, which had boarding stalled until we arrived. Fortunately, the driver of this train stopped at Trenton and I was back on the road, although I arrived at Trenton more than an hour later than I should have.
I had a conversation with Jamie during this, and he suggested I call Amtrak and complain, which I did. Amtrak, as an apology, issued a travel voucher for roughly the value of the purchased ticket. I should also point out that the conductor I dealt with was incredibly understanding through this, as were the Amtrak employees who dealt with me over the phone (which was even more surprising since I do not have status with Amtrak).
I wouldn’t consider this a regular occurrence; after all, this was a first for me, it was a first for the many people who were on the train (and likely those passengers at Trenton station who were supposed to board that Acela), and it was a first for Jamie, who is a much more seasoned traveler than I am. That said, even though nobody’s perfect (how many times have I missed a turn when driving?), it does raise concerns for me. Over the past three years, Amtrak has been involved three derailments along the Northeast Regional route, and in two of them, 2015’s and 2016’s, the causes were determined to be something totally within the driver’s control (speeding in 2015 and distracted driving in 2016; 2017’s was a NJ Transit train running on Amtrak’s rails). When people are relying on you to get them safely from one point to another, you’ve got to make sure that the person operating that mode of transport is capable of doing so.
Is this enough to keep me from using Amtrak in the future? Probably not; again, the error rate for Amtrak is still incredibly low. It does shake my trust in Amtrak, though, as this experience shows some of those problems from 2015 and 2016’s derailments may still be in the system. I really want Amtrak to get better — compared to the national train systems of European countries, Amtrak is lagging behind the competition. As much as I want to see the infrastructure improvements, Amtrak can’t get there until and unless it addresses driver behavior.
And if this happens to you, now you know what to do.
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