Hot, dark and smelly for those stuck on stranded trains


NEWARK, N.J. (AP) – Does failure have a smell? On dozens of motionless Amtrak and commuter trains across the Northeast on Thursday, it absolutely did.

A power outage, still unexplained Thursday afternoon, left tens of thousands of rush-hour rail travelers stuck in a three-hour ordeal of sweltering trains, fetid, overflowing toilets and missed appointments.

In 30 years of Manhattan commutes, “This is shaping up as one of the worst ever,” Mike Kenny of West Windsor said as his NJ Transit train sat about a mile from the North Elizabeth station. “It’s getting pretty hot in here, and the bathroom is getting backed up.”

Jeff Oppenheim, stuck under the Hudson River soon after his Washington-bound Amtrak Acela train left New York’s Penn Station, described the plumbing situation delicately: “When you lose the power, you lose all the flushes too.”

The outage created widespread disruptions from Washington, D.C., to Boston on Amtrak and on commuter lines in New Jersey, Maryland and Pennsylvania. It was only the latest embarrassment for the nation’s federally subsidized passenger railroad, which had to shut down its high-speed rail service for months last year and has lost money in each of its 35 years of existence.

The outage prompted cries for change within Amtrak’s management.

“If there was ever proof that Amtrak is being terribly mismanaged with unqualified people at the helm, this power outage at the height of the morning rush hour is it,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.

Oppenheim, a New York actor and director who had been headed to a job coaching lawyers on their courtroom demeanor, said the train he was on started coasting as soon as it entered the tunnel.

“The rumor was that we were going to have to crawl out under the train,” said Oppenheim, who spent 3 hours and 15 minutes in the tunnel before his train lurched back to life at 11:15 a.m. Power had been restored to the heavily traveled system about 45 minutes earlier.

The outage tripped a number of electrical circuit breakers up and down Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor. Officials were reviewing electronic logs to identify the sequence of events to determine what happened, said Amtrak acting president David Hughes.

Hughes did not know how many Amtrak trains were affected but on a typical day, Amtrak operates 97 train departures between New York and Washington and 42 departures between New York and Boston. Thirteen NJ Transit trains also were stopped dead on the tracks by the outage, along with 28 SEPTA trains in Philadelphia and eight on Maryland’s MARC system.

Some stranded passengers jumped at the chance to get off the trains and walk. Joe Piasecki of Washington Crossing, Pa., was among 100 passengers who climbed out of a train to walk nearly a mile to the North Elizabeth station.

“It’s a kind of eerie, end-of-the-world feel,” said Piasecki, who had boarded the train in Trenton. “You have these two trains sitting here dead, not moving. You can’t see any cars or anything else moving. It’s like the world died.”

Passengers were taken off trains at several other stations, and diesel engines called in to either push or pull the stalled cars to the next station.

Amtrak has debt of more than $3.5 billion and a host of problems.

In April 2005, it had to cancel service on its Acela Express trains because of brake problems with the high-speed trains that carry passengers between Washington, New York and Boston. Full service was not restored until September.

Amtrak has been without a permanent president since David Gunn was fired in November, a few days after the Government Accountability Office – Congress’ auditing arm – issued a blistering report saying the railroad needed to improve the way it monitors performance and oversees its finances.

NJ Transit executive director George D. Warrington, who was Amtrak’s president until 2002, said the shutdown “punctuates the importance of good repair.”

“The federal government has been sidestepping that responsibility for 30 years,” Warrington said, adding that New Jersey has had to spend hundreds of millions of dollars itself on infrastructure along the Northeast Corridor.

Thursday’s outage may only worsen Amtrak’s financial health by encouraging travelers to think about other options. Car rental counters at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station did brisk business Thursday morning, while nearly all the trains on the information board were labels “DELAYED.”

Oppenheim, meanwhile, had a thought that many other suffering passengers no doubt shared: Next time, try the plane.