Story and Photos by RailPAC member Alexander Friedman
I love traveling cross-country by train and I have done so every year for over a decade. For this Thanksgiving holidays I decided to take, for the first time the Sunset Limited. Then after visiting New Orleans for a day, I planned to transfer onto the Crescent for a trip straight to Washington D.C. I was also going to visit my father who lives just west of our nation’s capital, for a nice Thanksgiving celebration. I was truly excited about riding these two routes, the few that I haven’t traveled yet.
On the evening of November 20th at Los Angeles Union Station I boarded the Sunset Limited. The train left a half an hour late, then stopped on a bridge over the LA River, just outside of Downtown LA. After losing nearly an hour, the Sunset Limited left our beloved City of the Angeles, heading east at full steam! Overall, the trip aboard Sunset Limited was uneventful; a smooth train ride with decent service and boring scenery. This allowed me to take care of lots of business on the way and to get some much needed rest after a stressful year.
Two days later our train pulled into New Orleans. I was at the hotel in no time. New Orleans truly impressed me! I loved the beautiful architecture, safe walkable environment, pedestrian-oriented overall infrastructure, and of course – the famous French Quarter was the most magnificent part. I was sad to leave this amazing city, rich in its history and architecture.
Early the next morning I boarded Amtrak’s “Crescent” for the second and final leg of my cross-country journey. The train departed on schedule, at exactly 7:00 a.m. I was in a Viewliner sleeping car roomette; our car was the first passenger car at the front right behind the baggage car. Unlike many U.S. long-distance trains with double-decker Superliners, the Crescent carries single-level cars, including antiquated 40 year-old coaches and a bit newer 20 year-old Viewliner sleepers. Our car attendant David was very friendly and professional. We had many interesting conversations with him and Steve (attendant from the next sleeping car) throughout the whole trip.
The first long day aboard the Crescent went well; the scenery was exciting compared to the Sunset Limited route. Landscapes of Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia were more interesting than Texas, Arizona, and Southern California combined. Indeed, dense forests, plenty of lakes and creeks, as well as dramatic mountains were far more interesting than the naked sandy plains of the Southwest. I truly enjoyed my trip on the Crescent.
The peculiar thing I noticed on the Crescent at high speeds was the train rocking; it almost felt like riding a horse. The rough up-and-down rocking was very unusual. But at the time I didn’t pay much attention to this minor (?) factor. Overall, I was happy with the journey; and just past 10:00 p.m. I started getting ready for a good night’s sleep with no idea what was about to happen in just a couple of hours.
At first, it was impossible to fall asleep due to our locomotive’s horn which was blowing constantly. I know the engineer is obliged by law to sound the horn before every intersection, even late at night! But since our car was at the very front the horn sounded even louder!
Eventually, I did fall asleep but not for long. At 12:10 a.m. there was a sudden, violent jolt. It was not strong enough to throw me out of bed but it sure woke me up! It felt like the train had dived into the ground with a loud grinding, “bang” sound. All my life I’ve ridden many trains, in different countries, on all types of tracks, switches, crossings, and joints. But this particular jolt didn’t feel like an expanded joint on rough track. This bump was sudden and strong. Immediately following the jolt our car softly jumped up thanks to the suspension and then “landed”. But the ride suddenly became bumpy, though it did not feel like we landed on railroad ties. Then the train came to a sudden halt! The train’s brakes had gone into emergency, something bad must have happened!
Without knowing exactly what had happened, passengers realized something was terribly wrong. There was a very unpleasant moment of silence at first to say the least. Everyone was awake and opened their sleeper doors, with only one question in mind: “What the heck just happen?” Our car attendant David was the first one in the hallway, calming everybody down. Passengers and our car attendant at first did not realize the train had derailed. Only after getting out of our car and jumping onto the ground, in the middle of a cold night, in freezing temperatures, did the car attendants learn first-hand that practically all the cars had jumped the track! Indeed, our train #20 “The Crescent” has derailed, on a cold wintry night of November 24th, near Spartanburg, South Carolina.
The first shock that everyone experienced was soon replaced by a euphoric feeling, “We are Ok!” Miraculously every derailed car remained upright, without overturning or even barely tilting. Only the last coach or two tilted slightly, but that was it. As our car attendant eloquently put it, “This was the best case scenario of a derailment!” We were planted firmly on the ground with no smoke, fires or explosion. The electricity which at first shut-off automatically was quickly restored. All 218 passengers were fine except for four folks who were treated for minor injuries.
What was interesting was our car, first passenger car on the train, just behind the baggage car was derailed only by its rear truck while our front truck remained on the track. That’s when I recalled our rough ride when reaching certain speeds. I figured it’s possible that our car had a defective wheel and/or suspension, causing the roughness of the ride, and contributing to the derailment. Further investigation will of course, determine the true cause.
Luckily for everyone, both locomotives and the baggage car also remained on the track. We couldn’t imagine how much worse it would have been if the locomotives were to derail, pulling the whole train with it. Our train #20 had “dodged the bullet”. We were thankful to be alive and well. Now all that was left was to relax and wait until Amtrak provided alternative transportation.
It took over 8 and half hours, well into the morning before Amtrak finally put us on buses. This unexplainable delay was only an inconvenience compared to the derailment. Still Amtrak demonstrated its ultimate bureaucratic self with poor communications (too long to describe every detail) which left a dark spot in our memories. The derailment happened in a suburban area near several highways: it was definitely not in the middle of nowhere. Delay after delay with little-to-no information from Amtrak and lack of coordination left most passengers frustrated and exhausted by the end of the day.
By about 8:15 a.m. we were all placed first in the baggage car, the only car remaining on the tracks, which we rode for about 300 yards to a temporary “passenger unloading” zone. This way people, many of whom were elderly as well as families with kids would not have to jump from the train onto the ground, and then walk on railroad ballast for some distance. The brief ride in the baggage car was quite an experience. Not that we felt any differently than if we were in a cattle car.
By 8:45 a.m. our bus finally left the accident scene. We arrived in Washington, D.C. 10 hours later. If Amtrak had coordinated their efforts a little better we could have arrived hours earlier. Amtrak did not even provide food (despite what the media reported). But all in all I am thankful that our train stayed on the ground and did not overturn. I’m also very thankful for our car attendants David and Steve who were very professional and supportive throughout the entire ordeal. They alone deserve a five-star rating of customer service and for helping so many passengers, in all respects.
Even though a train derailment and Amtrak’s mismanagement leaves bad memories and robs me of my desire to travel by train for a while, I still prefer rail travel, as opposed to flying or driving. I also have faith in our rail system, hoping that one day we will all witness dramatic improvements in service. Not only in its infrastructure and fleet, but more importantly in new safety features, track maintenance, and launching Positive Train Control. It’s time to embrace 21st century rail travel! I have faith that with the hard work of advocacy groups our wonderful country will finally invest in our rail infrastructure, giving people a reliable, safe, and great way to travel!