When word began to travel up the aisles that toilets on their long-stalled Amtrak train were stopped up, Malcolm Kenton and his aunt took their lone opportunity to disembark in Lynchburg, Va., still hundreds of miles from their homes.
They had spent more than 30 stifling hours onboard, waiting out lengthy delays caused by a winter storm that created a logjam for passenger trains headed up the East Coast that began Monday and continued into Wednesday. Trains were stalled so long that passengers reported arguments breaking out in rail cars, parents begging for spare diapers and onboard cafes running out of food.
“We didn’t want to risk staying on a train with no food and no toilets,” said Kenton, 36, who lives near Union Station in D.C.
Amtrak delays were just one part of holiday travel upended over the past two weeks, thrown off course by a perfect storm of wintry weather, pilots and airline staff sickened by the omicron variant surge, and what travel officials say was the highest number of travelers who took to rail, roads and the skies since the start of the pandemic. A fast-moving storm on Monday dumped between five and 10 inches of snow in the Washington region, creating a bottleneck in Virginia, snarling traffic on Interstate 95 for more than 36 hours, toppling trees onto tracks and creating the largest regional snowstorm blackout in 11 years.
Passengers such as Kenton said Amtrak was unprepared and provided them with little direction or information about the delays.
Amtrak spokeswoman Kimberly Woods said delays were caused by downed trees from winter weather. A service alert sent out Wednesday said customers whose trips have been changed are being accommodated on other trains and change fees are being waived.
Kenton’s Crescent-line train, running from New Orleans to New York, reversed course to Lynchburg after spending about seven hours stuck in the middle of Virginia. Passengers were given a chance to exit, and Kenton and his aunt Donna took it. Offloading after midnight Wednesday, Kenton begged a ride with a fellow traveler to a hotel, since no taxis or ride-share services were available.
On Wednesday, Kenton and his aunt began Day 3 of their journey from Greensboro, N.C., where they had spent the holidays with family, up the East Coast in a rental car. Kenton’s aunt planned to drop him off in the District before continuing on to her home in New York.
They won’t soon forget their ordeal, especially standing in a long line at the cafe and buying up what food they could just before the train ran out, leaving many passengers hungry.
“Amtrak routinely fails in crisis management,” Kenton said. “They don’t seem to have any good backup plans. They do things on the fly. So that’s our main complaint this time, and that they weren’t able to stock enough food or get any way of replenishing the water or empty the sewage tanks in Lynchburg.”
On Amtrak’s Auto Train, which carries passengers and their cars between Lorton, Va., and Sanford, Fla., Kip and Anna Knauer and their two young children were in similar straits. They live outside Reading, Pa., and were returning from Disneyworld, their first family vacation since the pandemic, when their train was stopped outside of Petersburg, Va., on Tuesday morning. The conductor told passengers that their delay could last anywhere from one hour to 10 hours, said Kip, 34.
“Of course, this raised alarm,” he said. “I have a 2-year-old and a 1-year-old. So we were concerned. My 2-year-old doesn’t like being confined, so that’s not a good course for him, being stuck on a train.” He added, “But what got me during this time is that no one knew anything. No communication.”
As the hours ticked away, people began to panic and buy up all the food and water at the cafe until it ran out, Kip said. The family had a private cabin, which came with meals, but the rations were so slim, they said, that they ended up with a small bowl of stew and a handful of rice. When the train moved again, it stopped in Richmond and a train attendant picked up stacks of pizza, handing a slice to each passenger.
Over the public address system, Kip said, an Amtrak employee called for passengers to stop fighting. Another asked if anyone had spare diapers for passengers, he said. The Knauers had packed extra snacks and food, and Anna kept her kids’ attention as long as she could by pulling out Play-Doh and other toys and showing them YouTube episodes of the kids show “Cocomelon.”
“Eventually we just sort of let whatever was going to happen, happen,” Anna, 30, said. “We tried to keep the peace as much as we could because we had neighbors.”
The delay was so long that Kip’s parents, who were driving north from the vacation, caught up to the stalled train even while dealing with nightmare traffic jams on Interstate 95. Kip gave them directions to where the train was stuck, and he implored the conductor to allow his family to get off and carpool the rest of the way, but the train official wouldn’t let them off.
The train eventually arrived at Lorton at 1 a.m. Wednesday, Kip said. The family waited another three hours to get their car offloaded, and then Kip put the kids in the car and began their drive back home to Pennsylvania. They arrived at about 6 a.m. — nearly 40 hours from when they had left Florida.
Kip said he paid $1,700 for the trip, money he wants refunded. He has tried to call Amtrak customer service 54 times, to no avail, he said just a few hours after the family had arrived back home.
The delay on the Auto Train line extended well into Wednesday. A train that left Lorton on Tuesday arrived at Sanford at about 1:30 p.m., four-and-a-half hours late, said passenger Hampden H. Smith III., a snowbird who lives in Lexington, Va.
All around the station parking lot in Sanford were cars waiting to be loaded for the return trip back north to Virginia.
“There were hundreds of cars all over the place waiting to be loaded,” Smith said in an email. “At this rate it will take 4 more days to clear out the delays caused by Monday’s storm.”