Amtrak Restoring New England Service After Snowstorm Strandings

Amtrak said its long-distance services through New England were returning to normal today, after two trains were stranded for as long as 14 hours in a weekend snowstorm that left tracks blocked by downed trees, rocks and other debris.

Northbound riders on the U.S. passenger rail service’s Vermonter service between Washington and St. Albans, Vermont, will be able to make the 14-hour trip today, Amtrak said in a statement. Southbound trains will be available only between Washington and Springfield, Massachusetts, with full service set to resume tomorrow, Amtrak said.

Normal operations on the Lake Shore Limited between Chicago and Boston restarted yesterday, according to the statement.

Riders on those two routes were stuck on stopped trains in Massachusetts for 14 hours and 12 hours, respectively, starting on Oct. 29. That was the same day passengers flying from Paris to New York on AMR Corp.’s American Airlines and travelers on a JetBlue Airways Corp. flight from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, were stranded for more than 7 hours on the tarmac at Bradley International Airport in Connecticut.

The storm, the biggest in October in decades, left more than 2 million homes and businesses without power after hitting Connecticut, New York and New Jersey with record snowfall.

Travelers on Amtrak’s northbound Vermonter were stuck for 14 hours near Palmer, Massachusetts, doubling the normal trip time for 77 riders, Clifford Cole, an Amtrak spokesman, said by phone. Lake Shore Limited passengers bound for Boston sat for 12 hours near Amherst, Massachusetts, bringing their total travel time from 19 hours to 31 hours, Cole said.

Both were delayed because of downed trees and wires and other debris on the tracks. The Lake Shore Limited also encountered a rock slide, Cole said.

Snacks, Bathrooms

JetBlue passengers were without food, water or working restrooms, the Associated Press reported. The train travelers had bathroom service and heat, and the 48 stranded Lake Shore Limited passengers received complimentary snacks, Cole said.

Amtrak in both cases had to rely on the freight railroads that own the tracks to clear the debris, Cole said.

“When we’re on a host railroad’s tracks and there is some kind of stoppage it is not up to Amtrak when to move,” Cole said. “When we have an operational issue we defer to that host railroad for how we are able, if we are able, to proceed.”

The Vermonter was operating on the New England Central Railroad’s tracks when it had to stop. The regional freight carrier is part of Jacksonville, Florida-based RailAmerica Inc., which owns 43 short line and regional freight railroads in the U.S. and Canada.

Uprooted Trees

“It was a phenomenal amount of trees that came down, all with their leaves still on, including some that were uprooted,” Charles Hunter, assistant vice president of government affairs for RailAmerica, said in a phone interview. “About 100 miles of track, from the south end of Connecticut into Vermont, was covered in debris.”

The Lake Shore Limited was using the tracks of Jacksonville-based CSX Corp., the largest U.S. railroad by revenue east of the Mississippi River.

The railroad had to deploy generators in Massachusetts “to ensure the operation of signals and warning devices to make up for the loss of commercial power,” Gary Sease, a spokesman for CSX, said by phone.

Chainsaw Work

The “tedious process” of clearing tracks took days to complete, Sease said. “We’ve done a lot with technology, but at the end of the day there’s nothing that can replace an employee with a chainsaw removing trees,” he said.

Vermonter rider Zephyr Teachout said she didn’t mind what happened so much, nor did many of her fellow travelers. “It was mostly Yankees so most people didn’t grumble,” Teachout, an associate professor at the Fordham University School of Law in New York, said in a phone interview.

Some people complained that Amtrak didn’t give them enough information about what happened and when the problem would be resolved, she said.

“To say nothing is certainly unacceptable but sometimes the information is slow to come to us,” Cole said. “Any delay for us is a problem, whether it’s our fault or not. But under the circumstances our main goal is to keep people safe and we think we accomplished that.”

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