When Rebekah Dodson boarded the Amtrak Coast Starlight late Sunday afternoon, she settled in for what should have been a four-hour trip to her home in southern Oregon. The train, whose route mostly hugs the Pacific Coast, runs daily between Seattle and Los Angeles and is billed as “one of the most spectacular of all train routes.”
Before long, Dodson — who takes the Coast Starlight regularly — was cruising south with 182 other passengers, taking in familiar scenery.
“Usually it’s a pretty uneventful ride over mountain passes,” Dodson said later in a Facebook live video.
Not on this day. Shortly after 6 p.m. local time, the train struck a downed tree that had fallen on the tracks after snowstorms had walloped the region, and lurched to a sudden halt.
“Everyone knew there was something wrong because we stopped so fast,” Dodson told The Washington Post in a phone interview early Tuesday morning. “That wasn’t fun at all.”
Passengers were originally told they would be delayed “a couple of hours” as crews repaired the train, Dodson said.
However, those few hours stretched into nearly two days, as inclement weather complicated efforts to clear the tracks of snow and get an alternate engine to tow the train away.
In all, Amtrak’s Coast Starlight Train 11 was stranded just outside Oakridge, Ore., for more than 37 hours after it stalled.
In emails and a statement Tuesday, Amtrak apologized for the “extended delay” and defended the decision to not let passengers off the train while stranded in Oakridge, a small town in the Cascade Range about 40 miles southeast of Eugene and 150 miles south of Portland.
“With more than a foot of heavy snow and numerous trees blocking the track, we made every decision in the best interest of the safety of our customers during the unfortunate sequence of events," Amtrak chief operating officer Scot Naparstek said. "With local power outages and blocked roads, it was decided the safest place for our customers was to remain on the train where we were able to provide food, heat, electricity and toilets.”
None of the 183 passengers on board were injured in the incident, Amtrak noted.
Dodson said the repair crews Sunday night worked on the train’s brakes until 6 a.m. Monday, and that it gradually dawned on passengers — literally — that they could be trapped on the train for much longer than estimated.
“We’re running low on supplies,” Dodson said in a video recorded Monday night, after the train had been stuck for 24 hours. “It is dark. There is more snow on the way and we are stranded for another night. . . . Please send help if possible.”
She would later tell KTVL News that passengers were putting washcloths together to create makeshift diapers for babies on board and scrounging together feminine products for women who had run out.
Another passenger, Carly Bigby, told KOIN 6 News on Monday that the snack cart was empty and children were restless.
“A lot of the [older] kids have been really good but they’re having to run up and down and it’s a lot,” Bigby told the news station. “Moms are doing all they can right now.”
Late Monday night, Amtrak said on Twitter that passengers on board the train were not being charged for food or water.
“We are doing everything in our power to make sure they are comfortable,” the railroad said.
In a statement Monday, the freight rail company Union Pacific said its crews were helping clear the track and expected to reach the stranded Amtrak train by 6 a.m. Tuesday local time. Whenever the train is fixed, it will return to Eugene, then north to Portland, the company added.
They reiterated Amtrak’s decision to keep passengers on the train, noting there was limited lodging in Oakridge.
"With only two small hotels in town they don’t want to separate the passengers prior to having them reboard for departure,” Union Pacific stated.
As passengers spent their second night on board, Dodson said passengers were having panic attacks and chasing down restless toddlers.
“We have NOT MOVED for 30 straight hours,” Dodson wrote on Facebook. “This is hell, and it’s getting worse.”
Around 5:30 a.m. local time Tuesday, Dodson sounded more optimistic as she spoke from a spot next to the bathroom, one of the few quiet places on her car. An engine had arrived to tow their train back north, but it would likely be several more hours before they would be moving, she said.
Dodson noted that she was one of the few people on board with reception, and had fortunately been able to keep her phone charged because the train was running on generator power. Meanwhile, passengers on board were passing the time however they could.
“We’ve been playing cards. Playing with kids. Dominoes,” Dodson said. “Hanging out in the cafe car. Wandering around the train.”
At last, around 7:20 a.m. local time Tuesday, the Coast Starlight was moving again. It was getting towed north — meaning passengers would be returning to the stations where they had originally boarded.
“We’re moving about 1 mph,” Dodson said in a subsequent phone interview.
She estimated it could be days before she could make her way home to Klamath Falls, Ore., because roads are closed and there are no flights available.
Dodson said she had nothing but praise for the crew on board the train, who remained “polite and professional” despite working nearly two straight days.
Amtrak, however, never responded to her requests for updates and has not offered to compensate or reaccommodate passengers, she said.
“We’ve heard nothing,” she said.