Cold weather impacts on Amtrak equipment

3 minute read

Amtrak, its predecessor and competitor passenger railroads try to keep the trains rolling under all safe weather conditions. Sometimes trains are annulled, cancelled or turned around before the end stop if the schedule is extremely delayed (say, more than 18 hours for a once-daily train). Passengers who feel annoyed should remember that often air travel is backed up for even longer. It can be better to get somewhere sooner on a slower train, rather than wait days for a flight.

Toilets

The captive toilet system was retrofit in the 1990s on the dual-level Superliner trains from the 1970s, which formerly discharged toilet waste onto the tracks. Other nations’ trains also discharge(d) waste onto the tracks, as this is a very simple system. Even though the single-level Viewliner I trains were built new in the 1990s, their captive waste system can freeze up when the outside temperature is below about 10°F / -10°C for several days. It seems like the freezing occurs in a common area, because my experience is either all the toilets are working or they disable them all. Before they freeze totally, weak suction may be noted (incomplete flush). Hopefully, the Viewliner II cars will have a better design. The coach car toilets (Amfleet) have a simpler liquid flush toilet design that doesn’t seem prone to freezing.

Vestibules

The inevitable gaps in the flexible passageway between cars leads to snow blowing into the vestibules. I have seen as much as a two inch (5 cm) gap in the flexible passageway, leading to enormous amounts of snow in the vestibules.

Mitigation by staff typically include

  • placing towels on the floor
  • chemical ice melt (tracks onto carpets)

Schedule

When inclement weather is expected along your route, and during times of very cold weather, keep an eye on previous day’s travel. If the train arrives hours late into the station, the short staffing of Amtrak means the crew needs to get their federally mandated 8 hours rest. For example, the Lake Shore Limited is scheduled to arrive at 9:45AM in Chicago, and depart at 9:30PM. If the 49 train is 6 hours late to arrive, that leaves less than 8 hours for the crew to rest, and so the 48 train may depart a few hours late if there was no alternate crew, as frequently happens around year-end holiday time.

In general with any form of travel, particularly around winter holidays when storms and cold weather are frequent, allow extra time. Leave an extra day before returning to work these times of year. For example, a teacher needing to return to class January 2 should not try to have a scheduled return of January 1 at 10PM by any mode of transit.

Misconnects

The weak link in Amtrak’s system with regard to missed connections are historically

  • Lake Shore Limited: westbound 49
  • Empire Builder: eastbound 8

The California Zephyr and Southwest Chief have historically done bus bridge bypasses from Galesburg GBB of Chicago Union Station for passengers connecting to eastbound trains. That is, the bus may pick you off the train in Galesburg to connect to your train east of Chicago. Check ahead of time to see what’s happening, don’t wait for Amtrak to call you when you have a connection and your train is hours late.

For sleeper passengers in particular, watch the time train 49 arrives in Toledo. Typically 49 does not make up more than 10-20 minutes time, and can even lose another hour of time! If you don’t anticipate having at least 15 minutes between arrival and Chicago and departure of your train, call Amtrak. Amtrak will normally not hold a connecting westbound train more than about 10-15 minutes, and I have seen where they would not hold the connecting train 20 minutes.

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