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Adventures in travel

We were dropped off at entrance to St. Paul’s union depot about eight in the morning, despite our awareness that the train was already delayed approximately 45 minutes. As we sat in the cavernous hall, along with a growing number of passengers, I researched the internet for information about the status of the train.

Amtrak itself does not seem to publish a real-time map of the system, but several enterprising (and low-budget) sites exist for this purpose. The appropriately named railrat being my new go-to. I appreciate the quick load times and mostly text-based information, however all the news was bad. The delay times grew longer and longer between data refreshes.

After a text message update from Amtrak (“we’re experiencing delays”), I considered heading back home to grab the van, but was able to determine that the train had in-fact left St. Cloud and was chugging our way. There were updates on railrat of the speed dropping to zero that impacted the growing delay, and I could only guess that the great Empire Builder was being forced to wait as freight trains sharing the tracks were moving in and out.

Before too much longer, at least, the train did arrive at St. Paul’s Union Depot. A long line had quickly formed in anticipation, and general announcements were made to the group. Looking back at the line one could only imagine what this hall looked like in the hey-day of train travel out of Minneapolis and St. paul, with multiple platforms serving the upper midwest.

Clearly the conductor had worked on his comedy routine as he explained the boarding procedure. Have your barcode out when you get to the front. If you don’t have your bar code out you will be sent to the back. If there were groups of 3 or more traveling together, come to the front so that they could efficiently assign the seats in coach.

Immediately two older folks and their dog walked to the front. The conductor reprimanded them with enough volume so that the entire line could hear, “No, your dog does not count as a person in your group.”

Person number four in line could not produce his barcode quickly enough, and then phoned a friend to discuss. He was directed to the back of the line. We approached the scanner, and were told “car four, and make sure they know you’re getting off at Glenview”.

We found two seats in coach quickly. I chose the left side of the train so that we could view the river on the way down. (Counter-intuitive because the river is on your right as you sit in Union Depot.) My memories of the last couple Amtrak rides quickly flooded back. The seats are in rough shape. The carpet, rougher. One of the reading lights doesn’t work. One of the tray tables, stuck in place. One seat missing a foot rest. For what we spend on a mile of rural highway resurfacing it seems that we could get some upholstery in here.

Nonetheless, the seat is comfortable and we get organized. Books, laptops, games, headphones and snacks come spilling out of our bags as we settle in. Pretty soon, the train starts moving. “It’s so smooth!” Elena exclaims.

The first couple stops and hours pass quickly. Since we were approximately 3 hours late in departing, lunch is served before we leave Minnesota. We are seated in the dining car with a graduate student attending UI Champage-Urbana for Computer Engineering. He’s from China. Can’t find an internship for the summer. “Is the job market good?” I think it is, I reply, not really knowing. We learn that he took the train from Chicago to Seattle and back for his winter vacation from school. We all order the burger. It’s quite tasty. I have the last Stone IPA in the dining car before they shut down the service.

The snowfall has picked up as we cross into Wisconsin, but we continue to chug along. Despite promises to “make up some time” in route, I determine from railrat that we are basically holding steady. Around the Wisconsin Dells, the troubles begin.

I had previously noticed an odd shudder in the train, seemingly when they were attempting to accelerate on the straights. We are clearly moving slower as we pull away from a most recent small station. An announcement is made that we are experiencing “a little” difficulty with the engine and they “can’t get it past notch 5”. “Possibly an hour to milwaukee” After the next stop in Columbus, WI, the train remains motionless for an exceedingly long time. At 5:03pm, the power drops out. The ventilation and accessory power stop. Attempts to reboot the systems are apparently made as the power comes on and off several times. An announcement or two are made, I’m guessing from the engine area, based on the ambient noise surrounding the unknown speaker. What I could only describe as a “hot mic” catches the following: “got a fault on the engine, it won’t move”.

Approximately two hours later, the train lurches violently several times as it attempts to start moving. I consider putting on the long underwear I brought along explicitly for the purpose of trudging across a wind-swept Wisconsin cornfield in a snowstorm in the event of an engine failure. There is no cell signal. Madison is 25 miles to the southwest. We could probably hitch a ride as soon as we find a road. As vague apocalyptic thoughts past through my head, the train starts moving, slowly at first and then with more purpose. Judging by the occasional vehicle I can see through the blizzard, we’re moving approximately 40 miles per hour.

A cell signal returns quickly enough and I get back on the site. The simple html and text once again loads instantaneously, even on 1 bar of LTE. (Did I mention there is no wifi on this train?) Railrat confirms the mental calculations I had made. We are about four hours behind schedule, now expected to arrive at 10pm. We’ve missed pizza night. The reserved uber ride from the glenview station is canceled until we have a better understanding of the arrival time.

At 7:12pm One of the Amtrak attendants gets on the PA to ask every to pray that we make it to Chicago. The amish man seated across from me loudly munching on a duffel-sized bag of popcorn dutifully lowers his head in silent assent.

Perhaps the call to prayer works in our favor, because with little additional drama, the train arrives to the Milwaukee station and slows to a stop. Immediately, all hell breaks loose.

“Assistance to the platform, we have a situation” crackles across the radio. A moment or two later, a wildly more urgent announcement. “We need some immediate assistance outside car 15, we have an emergency!”

Passengers in our car pile towards the windows trying to determine what is happening. The bystander effect kicks in, and I wonder for a moment if I should head closer to the situation, whichever direction that is.

Before I can leave my seat, another announcement. “The police have been called.” I can see one of the Amtrak employees carrying a piece of luggage and escorting someone off the platform. A terse announcement over the PA. “Please everyone stay calm, nobody is to leave the train. We have a serious situation outside.”

I can see a police cruiser pull up and park as if the driver is completing their behind the wheel training. A new, calmer person is on the PA: “I just wanted to get on and de-escalate the situation since the term “emergency” was used. We are waiting here for a new engine so that we can safely complete the remainder of the journey to Chicago. It will take approximately 30 minutes to get the new engine placed on the tracks and hooked up. We deeply apologize for the delays and appreciate your patience. Also, there was a brawl outside and the police were called.”

I consider asking if we can get off so that I can take a $250 Uber ride the remainder of the journey. I also consider renting a car, but all of the car rental locations are closed. The still blustery and snowy conditions do not inspire confidence in those options. Neither does the next announcement. “The new engine is here and we just need to cut the front engine off, hook up a few cables and we should be on the move. Should be about fifteen minutes” We’re currently running 6 hours late.

It is within an acceptably fuzzy 15 minute that we do indeed begin rolling. Clearly the tracks between Milwaukee and Chicago have seen some recent maintenance and repair. The engine pulls hard and we are quickly moving 75 miles per hour. (I had downloaded a GPS app at some point to check on our speed.)

Carl (from the Café car) gets on the PA. I had made a previous comment to Carl, while picking up a beer from the Café car, that this had been quite the adventure in my cheery Minnesota small talk way. His gaze of cold realism fixed on me as he said, “I’m just wanting to get home to my family.”

Carl’s mood has clearly lifted with the new southerly speeds. “Once again we apologize for the delays on our journey. At this time, everything in the Café car is complimentary. Everything except alcohol, which will NOT be served.”

Not one to turn down free food, I leap into action. So do at least two thirds of the trains passengers. Luckily I had beat most of them to the door, and was down in the stairs in a flash. Six or seven others were in front of me, grabbing everything they could see like a Kay-bee toy run. Elena pulls up next me as we take a candy bar, an asian noodle salad, and a diet coke for me. I look at Carl and say “thank you, hope you get to see your family soon”. He nods and hands me an ice-filled cup for the Diet Coke.

The North shore continues to whiz by the window. Now lit with suburban Chicago glow, I can see the snow has stopped. An announcement over the PA, Glenview is next. I’m still hopeful for what train travel in this country could be like. We grab our bags, nod to our fellow passengers and head for the exit. Two college-aged women are discussing their similar majors at different institutions. They are getting picked up by friends for late-night eats. Each makes this journey often, neither has experienced anything like it before.

It’s midnight as we stop in Glenview, more than 12 hours since we boarded and about 16 hours since we arrived to Union depot. It was an adventure, and we made it safely. Unfortunate to report upon, but I would still do it again. Not this weekend though, since our return ticket on Amtrak was already cancelled due to the storm and cascading crew displacement. Next time, I guess. Just now, as I finish the typing this story from the floor of O’Hare International Airport, a text buzzes on my phone. “Your flight is delayed.”

The quotes in this story are true to the best of my recollection. Names have been changed. The Amtrak employees we met were all working hard, despite the broken system.

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