Friday, May 29, 2009

Transport: My First Amtrak Derailment

WARE, MASSACHUSETTS - I've been on board a train that derailed before. The most dramatic incident was a special Massachusetts Bay Railroad Enthusiasts Excursion in fall 2003 on the Washington County Railroad near Fairlee, Vermont. Running along the Connecticut River at a speed near 25 mph, passengers on "The Dartmouth" excursion suddenly felt vibrations not unlike an earthquake after a rail either spread or turned over after the passage of the locomotives on the normally freight-only line. The engineer was immediately advised by the conductor of the situation and brought the train to a safe halt. My car was leaning substantially toward the river, but was not in any actual danger of moving any farther, and nobody was injured in the incident. Passengers were bussed back to White River Junction, and the excursion was re-run successfully in the spring of 2005.

However, before today, I had never been on a normally-scheduled Amtrak train that derailed. After taking a VIA Rail Canada corridor train from Ottawa to Montreal to start the day (a train that averaged 58 mph, including stops, for its 115 mile journey), I left Montreal on Amtrak train #70, the "Adirondack," operated as far as the United States-Canada border by VIA crews on track owned by Canadian National. It had been a slow trip after departing on time, with dispatching issues and slow orders placing the train nearly a half hour behind schedule as we approached the border.

Not even one mile into the United States, before reaching the junction with the Canadian Pacific line that would take us to Schenectady, New York, and short of the location where United States Customs and Immigration would normally inspect the train, we were operating in yard limits at less than 10 miles per hour when I didn't like what I had just heard or felt. I thought I heard a noise like a wheel falling off a rail and felt too rough of a ride. After a few more feet, the engineer stopped the train.

On the radio, he said, "Head end to #70, I think you need to walk the train." "Why?" "You'll see." Sure enough, when the conductor walked the train, he found that three of the five cars in the train were at least partially off the rails, and reminiscent of the "Dartmouth" incident, my car had all of its left wheels off the track and was leaning noticeably, though not enough to require evacuating the car. As soon as a derailment was verified, I knew that my train ride for the day was over. In general, when wheel sets touch the ground, they have to be replaced before the car can return to revenue service, so this train wasn't going anywhere, at least with passengers on board.

Customs and Immigrations agreed to walk about a quarter-mile to clear the train where derailment had occurred. In the meantime, the crew announced a "mechanical failure with the train" (I'd say it was a mechanical failure of the track) and scrambled to deal with situation. Buses were called, then upon arrival refused to run up the access road to where the train was located, instead staying at the Rouses Point, New York station. By the time the crew improvised, carrying luggage on railroad pickup trucks while most passengers walked the quarter-mile to the buses, we had spent nearly four hours in Rouses Point.

Despite the delay, the direct run on the buses to Albany-Rensselaer where through passengers would be placed on a train again nearly made us on schedule again. The crew with the exception of the lounge car attendant (and I'm being charitable to her by leaving it at that) clearly tried hard to minimize the disruption as a result of the incident, and I give the conductor particular credit for his coordination efforts; he was so busy I never got a chance to ask his name. Ultimately, the blame for the derailment has to fall on Canadian National for not maintaining their tracks well enough to handle a passenger train traveling at less than 10 mph.

It certainly was not just another routine day on the railroad.

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