CHICAGO – The Amtrak train slowed to a crawl as it hammered through snowdrifts in an empty stretch of Illinois countryside, delivering thuds and jolts to passengers, until it lurched into a mound big enough to grind its 8,000-horsepower engine to a halt.
About 90 miles short of their Chicago destination, passengers ended up stuck on the train overnight, reading books, watching movies on computers and taking what amusement they could from a conductor who cracked jokes over the intercom. Food ran low and some tempers boiled over, but staff kept the heat on, entertained children and even escorted small groups of people outside for smoke breaks.
“You hear those horror stories about the cars that stop in the snow and they freeze to death. I thought, ‘Oh God, this is going to happen, we’re going to be in blankets,'” said passenger Chris Smith.
They weren’t alone. Across huge swaths of the country, the polar vortex froze travel and left motorists, airline passengers and commuters fighting to stay in motion and, when that failed, fighting to stave off boredom and cold. Airlines again cancelled several thousand flights Tuesday, as the extreme cold slowed everything from baggage-handling to refuelling . On the roads, powerful winds pushing snow into desert-like dunes forced authorities to shut major highways, including a 75-mile stretch of Interstate 81 north of Syracuse, N.Y., to the Canadian border.
The snow-bound train stuck near the tiny village of Arlington in north-central Illinois was one of three Amtrak trains carrying a total of 500 passengers that got stuck in the state overnight. Amtrak officials eventually got them to safety, then bused them to their destinations.
Smith’s train began its journey in warm Los Angeles but rolled into trouble in the frozen Midwest.
“They started to cut through heavier and heavier drifts,” said Smith, 45, a sound designer for films who got on the train at Garden City, Kan. “The passenger on my side was joking, he said, ‘I think we ran over somebody.’ They weren’t huge bumps, but it was enough to jerk the train.”
When the train stopped altogether, around 4 p.m. Monday, a conductor came on the loudspeaker and quipped, “As you can see, there’s a little bit of snow out there.”
“At first it was kind of funny, and our conductor had a good sense of humour about it, and then it stopped being funny,” said Carley Lintz, a 21-year-old journalism student on her way back to Northwestern University from her home in Gardner, Kan.
The crew served a dinner of beef stew over rice, but the lounge car eventually ran out of everything but drinks, Smith said. Several passengers speaking to news outlets by cellphone earlier Tuesday had complained about deteriorating conditions, including flooded sinks and toilets, but Smith and others on his train only saw overflowing trash cans.
Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said emergency workers were on standby, and that train crews handed out food and prepared for any medical issues, though he said there were none.
As night set in, some tried to sleep. Others paced. There was enough of a 3G signal for those glued to smartphones and tablets to stay connected. Another train coming to the rescue also got stuck. Local authorities arrived. Crews shovelled and plowed, and passengers eventually were moved to a second train, taken back to Princeton, Ill., and put on buses to Chicago. The ordeal lasted some 17 hours.
Airlines and airports continued to suffer under the strain of the cold Tuesday, though conditions appeared to be slowly improving. More than 2,500 flights had been cancelled by late afternoon Tuesday, an improvement from Monday’s 4,100 cancellations, according to tracking service FlightAware.com
United Airlines still was operating reduced schedules at its hubs in Chicago, Cleveland and Newark, N.J., partly because it was dangerous for ramp workers to be loading bags outside in the extreme cold.
JetBlue said that by midafternoon, it was operating a full schedule of flights at Kennedy, LaGuardia, Newark, N.J., and Boston’s Logan Airport after suspending flights there late Monday.
Chief operating officer Rob Maruster said of the temporary shutdown, “We own it … and I think we have to make it right” with displaced passengers. The airline is offering travel vouchers of varying amounts.
Travel industry analyst Henry Harteveldt said he thought JetBlue did the right thing and avoided having thousands of passengers possibly stranded at frozen airports. Passengers were inconvenienced, he said, but at least got to stay warm at home or at a hotel instead of “stuck on a plane going nowhere.”
It was a flight cancellation that led Chicago high school teacher Rob Chambers, his husband and mother-in-law to take the train back to Chicago after the couple got married in Delaware, where same-sex marriage is legal. But their trip came to a halt in Indianapolis for more than a day because tracks were closed by heavy, blowing snow.
“We’re calling it the honeymoon ride home and here we are stuck in Indianapolis,” Chambers said by cellphone.
Associated Press writers Ashley Heher in Chicago and David Koenig in Dallas contributed to this report.