Luck, determination, and another way out of Cut Bank, part one

Posted by Malcolm Kenton
on Monday, February 20, 2017

I returned to DC early Thursday morning after joining a group of railroaders and friends of the industry who call themselves the Moonlighters (as they time their annual journey to coincide with the full moon, allowing for optimal nighttime viewing of the landscape) aboard VIA Rail’s Canadian from Vancouver to Toronto. This year’s Train 2 of Feb. 10 was impressively long at 19 streamlined ex-Canadian Pacific Budd cars (four domes, two diners, one coach, a baggage/dorm car and 14 sleepers, including the Park car) behind two locomotives and carried over 125 sleeping car passengers and 20-some coach passengers at any given time.

As expected, the trip did not disappoint, and thanks to unusually favorable treatment by Canadian National dispatchers, we made up for a five-hour delay incurred due to winter conditions in the Fraser River Gorge and ran on-time or close to it from Melville, Saskatchewan all the way to Toronto. There was snow on the ground the entire way, including an unusual five or so inches in the Vancouver area. The quality of VIA’s on-board service and the food in the diner continues to set a high bar that Amtrak would do well to emulate. And the train continues to serve the dual purposes of providing basic all-weather transportation to remote areas while also offering an upscale land cruise for sightseers. That said, the twice-weekly winter operation and extremely leisurely schedule (owing to VIA’s lack of the statutory priority over freight trains that Amtrak enjoys) make the Canadian a less useful vehicle for ordinary travel than the average Amtrak long-distance train.

Our ill-fated westbound Empire Builder pauses at Havre, MT, four hours late on Sunday evening, Feb. 5, 2017. Photo by Malcolm Kenton.
A friend and I booked travel westward from DC on Amtrak’s Capitol Limited and Empire Builder to arrive in Seattle a week before the Moonlighters’ departure from Vancouver. Our personal experience gave us confidence in the Builder’s ability to soldier through the harshest winter weather — my friend recalls an eastbound trip one January through a blizzard that closed parallel highways and stranded drivers in their cars, but which the Builder plowed through, despite incurring a 13-hour delay. 

All was well up to arrival in Chicago, with the Capitol Limited getting us there 45 minutes late. We lunched at the Walnut Room at Marshall Field’s and took in new exhibits at the Chicago Cultural Center. Upon returning to Union Station at the Builder’s scheduled boarding time, we were informed that boarding would be delayed at least 15 minutes. Four hours later, we were lined up for boarding and escorted to the gate, only to be returned to the lounge 10 minutes later as the train had yet another mechanical problem en route from the yard to the station. We finally boarded and departed at 8:30 PM, six hours & 15 minutes late. We were provided sandwiches in the lounge at 7:30 PM, and the dining car still provided a very limited dinner service after departure, as much of the food that had been prepared spoiled during the three-plus hours the train was without head-end power in the yard.

The lead locomotive for our stranded Builder, pushing the train east into a siding from the Cut Bank, MT station on Monday morning, Feb. 6, 2017. Photo by Malcolm Kenton.
The dining car crew and our sleeper attendant had great attitudes and did not appear fazed by the delay. Once on our way, the train zipped along at track speed and was handled well by CP and BNSF despite being well out of its slot, making up nearly two hours before reaching Montana. There was snow on the ground the whole way from Milwaukee westward. As we neared Havre, friends began sharing reports with us via social media about heavy snow expected around Glacier National Park. But we weren’t worried, and were even a bit excited about being on the only vehicle that could make it through such conditions. Only after departing Cut Bank almost four hours down did the weather begin to slow the train. When we stopped at Browning at 11:20 PM, we watched a woman with three kids and an older couple struggle onto the train through knee-high snow covering the platform. We then tried to get some rest.

During the night, I was vaguely aware that we were stationary for some time, and then reversed direction. We awoke just before dawn, stopped at East Glacier Park station with well over a foot of snow on the ground. The conductor then informed us on the P.A. that an avalanche had blocked the line ahead, and that a pair of BNSF diesels would tow us back to Cut Bank, from whence further arrangements would be made. After trying to rest in our berths for another hour or so, I used my phone to look into other transportation options so we would have a backup, then we headed to the diner for breakfast, at which point (around 8:00 AM) we had returned to the station in Cut Bank.


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