Amtrak ridership is up, but passengers grouse about frequent delays

By Andrea Sachs and Nancy Trejos
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, April 25, 2010

Amtrak's Northeast Regional train No. 177 was scheduled to arrive at Union Station at 1:25 a.m., but at that witching hour, it had made it only as far as Philadelphia, where it was stopped cold.

A half-asleep passenger asked a more conscious traveler what had happened. "Someone got hit by another train" farther south, outside Wilmington, Del., he replied.

In the cafe car, the staff had laid out free bottled water, trail mix, shortbread cookies, crackers and a cheese spread. But the travelers wanted their beds, not a buffet. The train finally left Philly at 2:58 a.m., arriving in Washington a little over two hours later. The sun was rising, and cabs were scarce.

Days later, a customer service representative called a passenger to apologize for the delay. "There was a trespasser," she said, offering a vague, slightly mysterious explanation. "It was beyond our control."

She said that the passenger would be mailed a $50 credit for a future train trip. The coupon duly arrived.

But weeks later, it remains unused.

To all those poor souls trapped on a stalled (or painfully slow) Amtrak train with no imminent plan to move (or arrive on time), here is the message: Learn to live with it.

Though many trains do run on time, or close to it, rail passengers frequently find themselves stuck in travel purgatory, because some unforeseen situation has tripped up Amtrak: A sluggish freight train is blocking the way; the engine's power source has conked out; a ne'er-do-well cow has wandered onto the tracks; there's cleanup on Track 1. The causes are legion, the delays legendary.

"It's a love-hate situation," said Jim Wrinn, editor of Trains magazine. "There's this promise of a really nice ride and experience, but it's really not there."

Still, many starry-eyed travelers continue to harbor hope that their Amtrak trip will succeed, especially now that the other modes of transportation are failing us. To fly, we dump out our wallets to nickel-and-diming carriers and expose ourselves to intrusive airport security, only to be crammed into a giant lipstick tube. Driving is no better, with clogged highways, irate drivers and gas prices that add up. Buses are cheap but lack personal space and some carry a strong whiff of street-food carts.

But train travel, we imagine wistfully and against most of the evidence, is different. The romance went out of it long ago, but we cling to the memories. We celebrate its presence in our lives on National Train Day, to be held in cities around the country, including Washington, on May 8. It's like the ex we can't stop contacting, believing that this time he or she won't disappoint. In our dream scenario, they show up on the dot, drop us off in a timely fashion, never skimp on meals and drinks and treat us kindly.

So we ask: Can America fall in "like" with Amtrak again?

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