Happening Now

Damned If You Do, And Damned If You Don’t

January 13, 2023

Unlike the Wolverine incident, Amtrak did everything right on the AutoTrain this week. They got a black eye anyway.

By Jim Mathews / President & CEO

Amtrak’s Auto Train made national TV news this week, thanks to a CSX derailment that added 20 hours to a 17-hour journey. But those of you who remember how sharply I criticized Amtrak a few months ago for a horrible and unsafe situation involving a Wolverine train heading to Chicago from outside of Detroit should know right now – what happened to the Auto Train this week was no Wolverine. And the Good Morning America feature on the incident, giving air time to passengers claiming Amtrak was holding them “hostage” was, well...let’s call it “unfair” since this is a family publication.

Let me say it up front: in the case of Monday evening’s AutoTrain departure from Lorton, VA, headed south to Sanford, FL, Amtrak did everything they could to take care of passengers. They did it right. Panicked passengers calling 9-1-1, claiming they were being held hostage, complaining that they weren’t being fed, and even popping open windows to try to leave, was an unnecessary overreaction.

Unlike the hapless Wolverine passengers this past Fall, these AutoTrain passengers had heat, power, food, water, and working toilets throughout this incident. They were stopped at a small station in Denmark, SC, for about seven hours while the train waited for a new crew to replace the staff who had run out of service hours, which means any genuine medical emergencies (had there been any) could have been addressed safely. Extra food was put on, with pizza brought on board in Savannah, GA, and more breakfast food put on the train in Jacksonville, FL. Crews handed out snack packs, too.

Amtrak can’t be held responsible when a Class I freight railroad experiences a serious derailment. Moreover, all of the things that I raised with FRA Administrator Amit Bose during the Wolverine meltdown were addressed correctly during this latest incident. Crews and dispatchers did not dither, and instead they took decisive action, detouring from CSX’s “A” line to the “S” line through Raleigh, NC, and Columbia, SC. When it became clear that this was going to be a very long delay, managers made another smart decision and terminated the Silver service train following behind, and established a bus bridge. Power and essential on-board services for passengers were maintained.

All of these steps show Amtrak trying to learn its lessons from the Wolverine debacle. Despite those efforts, however, a genuinely inconvenient trip gets spun on national television as a “hostage-taking” and Amtrak gets unfairly blamed for a situation out of its control.

I was on work travel myself this week, and on Wednesday I got caught up in the latest meltdown of U.S. domestic airline service. In that instance, failure of an FAA system halted all U.S. commercial air traffic for a couple of hours first thing Wednesday morning, unleashing havoc nationwide. Every single day, about 2.9 million people fly domestically in the U.S. On Wednesday, all 2.9 million of them experienced some issue related to that system failure. For some it was an inconvenience, for others it was delays and missed connections, and for still others – like me – it meant an unexpected overnight hotel stay in a different city because I was so late that I missed the last connecting flight home.

The takeaway lesson here is this: travel in the U.S. of any kind -- air, rail, auto, or bus -- has become inconvenient in nearly all ways in recent years. We need more investment in better systems and infrastructure so that things can get more reliable, and more convenient, and more safe. Sometimes, operators can be blamed for the problems. Southwest Airlines shot itself in both feet during the holidays because they failed to make the investments in systems basic to keeping the airline running. Amtrak deserved a shot across the bow for its mishandling of the Wolverine incident last Fall. But sometimes, the problem is bigger and blame must go where it belongs: for the past 50 years, our country has prioritized stock buybacks and executive bonuses instead of re-investing in capacity of all kinds, and this week AutoTrain passengers and air travelers paid the price.