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Pizza is nice, but complete information is essential

Posted by Malcolm Kenton
on Tuesday, May 16, 2017

A story about a Wilmington, Del.-area pizza shop delivering pies to passengers on stranded Amtrak Northeast Regional train 161 on Sunday evening has been making the rounds on social media. The story touched a nerve that has been opened in the wake of many other recent stories about travel mishaps, particularly the dragging of a passenger off of a United Airlines flight to make way for deadheading crew members. Particularly in the Northeast, where most are familiar with Amtrak and many have experienced delays traveling between Washington and New York, the hungry passengers have certainly garnered sympathy. Train 161, which originated in Boston, was due into Washington at 5:30 PM, but did not make it there until 8:40 PM.

Passenger Mitch Katz's photo of pizza deliveryman Jim Leary approaching stalled Amtrak Northeast Regional train 161 in Delaware on May 14. Photo posted by Katz on Twitter.
Amtrak spokeswoman Chelsea Kopta was quick to warn of the dangers of approaching a train on live tracks, telling The Washington Post “We are glad no one was hurt and hope this is not tried again in the future.” While Kopta is correct from a safety standpoint, there is much that Amtrak could have done better in this case from a public relations standpoint. I have heard of many other cases where Amtrak crews have made special arrangements to take care of passengers on stuck trains, including arranging for outside food to be brought on board. In this case, it is unclear whether the train’s cafe car remained open during the delay, whether it had enough of various menu items remaining in stock, and whether the head-end power remained on (if it was off, that would have hampered the cafe’s ability to serve food). Even if the cafe remained open and was serving the full menu, with all due respect to Amtrak, passengers can be forgiven for wanting something better than the cafe’s staid, microwaved fare.

Other unanswered questions about this story include how long the delay ended up being and what its cause turned out to be. We also do not know how deliveryman Jim Leary actually got the two pizzas onto the train, which was stopped in the middle of the main line somewhere southwest of downtown Wilmington. The story mentions an open window which, given the configuration of the train’s Amfleet I equipment, means that either an emergency exit window or a vestibule door was opened. Either a passenger figured out how to open the door or window, or the passenger got assistance from a sympathetic crew member and that detail was omitted from the story in order to protect the crew member’s job. If an emergency exit window was opened, that may have caused further delay as the window would have had to be replaced or passengers evacuated from that car before the train could proceed. But it was most likely a vestibule door that was open, as passenger Mitch Katz’s cell phone photo of Leary approaching the train appears to be taken from a vestibule.

The story also says that “most [passengers] were put on other trains.” This suggests that the problem affected only that train and that it wasn’t a track problem or other issue that kept other trains from proceeding south. But it is unclear why all the stranded passengers were not reaccommodated. Perhaps this only refers to passengers who were ticketed to board that train further down the line after the incident occurred — they could easily have been contacted and had their reservations switched to other southbound trains at no additional charge.

Perhaps the most important customer service lesson for Amtrak out of this incident is the importance of keeping passengers as informed as possible when a train comes to an unexpected stop for more than five or ten minutes. According to the Washington Post report, “the passengers weren’t sure how long they’d be there.” People are calmer and much more understanding when they know what’s going on. In my extensive experience as an Amtrak passenger (I ride at least once a month and have ridden all but three small pieces of the national network), providing information when something out of the ordinary occurs is an area in which Amtrak often falls short. The problem is particularly acute on the Northeast Corridor. In many cases, it’s not the conductor’s fault — he or she is often not given complete information from the dispatcher over the radio or from a supervisor or other official over the phone. The conductor of Sunday’s train 161 should have made every effort to find out what was keeping the train from proceeding and whoever was responsible for the situation (the dispatcher, a mechanical team, local law enforcement or whoever) should have provided the details. 

If I were a passenger stuck on that train, I probably would have refrained from taking part in the pizza order out of respect for railroad safety. But I would have pressed the conductor and even made phone calls myself to determine the reason for the stop and how long it was expected to last if the crew was not providing sufficient information. Making alternate accommodations, including bringing on outside food, is appreciated in cases like this, but the very least passengers should expect is to be informed.

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