Winter punches Amtrak long distance service

Scarce equipment, weather, and mechanical issues delays long-distance train departures as much as 9 hours
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The westbound Lake Shore Limited is more than three hours late passing Amtrak’s Chicago Locomotive Shop on Jan. 4.
Bob Johnston
CHICAGO — After almost two weeks in which nearly every Amtrak long distance train’s departure from both the New York and Chicago experienced substantial delays, passengers this week finally got a taste of punctuality.

On Jan. 8, the southbound Crescent became just the second of 40 overnighters since Dec. 30 to depart New York Penn Station no more than 5 minutes late.

Other delays were monumental.

On New Years Day, the Crescent left town at 11:21 p.m., more than nine hours past its normal 2:15 p.m. departure, while the Miami-bound Silver Meteor of Jan. 6 kept passengers cooling their heels at Penn until 12:47 a.m. following a scheduled 3:15 p.m. New York departure. The Silver Star left 6 hours late the same day.

Both of those Florida trains were the first to operate after two days of cancellations as a result of the northbound Meteor’s Jan. 3 derailment of three rear cars while it backed into the Savannah, Ga., station to avoid a frozen switch. That mishap at a key choke point caused an 18-hour delay northbound and almost seven-hour delay southbound to Auto Train, which was also cancelled for two days while freight and passenger congestion cleared.

Although Auto Train resumed on-time arrivals and departures immediately, New York-Miami service is still recovering. Both the northbound Meteor and Star departed Miami more than three hours late on Monday, Jan. 8 as a result of late inbound arrivals from trains scheduled out of New York on Jan. 6. On Jan. 9, the Silver Meteor departed Penn Station just short of an hour late.

While Amtrak officials declined Trains News Wire’s request to explain specific reasons for departure tardiness, the primary reason these long distance runners didn’t answer the bell and leave on time is the acute lack of spare cars and locomotives. This means that any winter ailments the trains incur such as snow-ingested traction motors or freeze damaged piping must be repaired by shop forces because no substitute equipment is available.

The situation is exacerbated by late arrivals. Though never mentioned by media accounts of highway and air-crippling snows that pounded Erie, Pa., and upstate New York, host railroads CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern always managed to get the Lake Shore Limited through the post-Christmas storms. But en route freight congestion and track outages caused 10 of 12 eastbound Lake Shore Limited’s arriving Chicago between Dec. 28 and Jan. 8 to be at least 3 hours late.

Because the Lake Shore’s single-level consist of Viewliners and Amfleet IIs is scheduled to turn back to New York and Boston by 9:30 p.m. and compete with other often-late trains for track space inside the two-track heated servicing and inspection building, the passengers had to wait more than two hours to board nine times during the period, with three Chicago departures after 1:30 a.m.
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