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Staff shortages, government uncertainty and weather all blamed for travel hell


Angry travelers were asking on Tuesday night how it was possible to be so woefully abandoned by America’s private and public transport providers, after thousands of people were stranded following Monday’s snow storm on the East Coast.

Train passengers traveling from New Orleans to New York City on Amtrak’s Crescent Train 20 endured delays of such magnitude that their 30-hour journey arrived one day, six hours, and 34 minutes late. Passengers were stuck for so long near Lynchburg, Virginia, that the toilets overflowed and they ran out of food.

Motorists driving through Virginia along the I-95 were stuck in their cars for over 20 hours amid ferocious snow storms that swept the area on Sunday night and through Monday.

Many were asking why the delays could not have been foreseen, with trains cancelled well in advance and roads closed as soon as the accidents happened – ideally before. Furthermore, how was it possible that a country with such wealth and technology ground to a halt following an expected winter storm?

One of the biggest problems was communications on board Amtrak.

Passengers are seen disembarking in New York City after a terrible Amtrak journey, with a 28-hour delay

Snow storm Frida knocked down trees on top of railways in Virginia on Monday, causing Amtrak trains to stall, some for up to 30 hours

Snow storm Frida knocked down trees on top of railways in Virginia on Monday, causing Amtrak trains to stall, some for up to 30 hours 

Amtrak said the trains would resume once the tracks have been cleared up

Amtrak said the trains would resume once the tracks have been cleared up

Riders aboard the two delayed trains expressed their frustration on Twitter

Riders aboard the two delayed trains expressed their frustration on Twitter

Lavita Booker filmed herself inside the stranded train

Booker and about 200 passengers were stuck aboard

Lavita Booker (left) said she and about 200 other passengers aboard the Amtrak Crescent were stuck for more than 30 hours in Lynchburg, Virginia 

Passengers complained about being left in the dark, with little information about what was happening.

Amtrak on December 30 reduced its schedule until January 6, citing poor weather and COVID-19 cases among employees, despite 97 per cent of workers being vaccinated. That likely impacted the staff who’d otherwise have been able to brief the stranded passengers on what happened, and help try to organize a rescue more promptly. 

Executives warned Congress last month that a coronavirus vaccination mandate threatened to leave it short-staffed, and the mandate was suspended on December 14.

A broader labor shortage was also posing challenges as Amtrak tries to recover from the pandemic’s downturn in travel.

Amtrak, funded by taxpayers, is chronically under-resourced as it maintains its network of unprofitable rail lines – only the Northeast Corridor routes are economically viable.

Since 1971, when Amtrak was founded, federal law has required Amtrak operate a national passenger rail system that includes long distance routes. 

Joe Biden, an Amtrak devotee from his time commuting by train from his Delaware home to Washington DC, has allocated $66 billion in new funding for rail, as part of his Build Back Better plan.

The money is designed to address Amtrak’s maintenance backlog, along with upgrading the high-traffic Northeast Corridor from Washington to Boston.

But the money is yet to be felt.

William Flynn, the CEO of Amtrak, is stepping down on January 17. He is pictured during a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing in October 2020, titled 'Passenger and Freight Rail: The Current Status of the Rail Network and the Track Ahead'

William Flynn, the CEO of Amtrak, is stepping down on January 17. He is pictured during a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing in October 2020, titled ‘Passenger and Freight Rail: The Current Status of the Rail Network and the Track Ahead’

Furthermore, Amtrak is in the midst of a leadership change, with William Flynn, chief executive officer, stepping down on January 17.

He will be replaced at the head of the $5 billion-a-year organization by Stephen Gardner – currently Amtrak’s president, leading the railroad’s day-to-day operations, customer growth initiatives and strategies to modernize Amtrak’s products, services, infrastructure and fleet.

Amtrak’s struggles – in particular their communication failures – are not the only factor in the chaos this week.

America’s rail network is a complex patchwork of ownership and responsibilities.

Responsibility for maintaining the train system is jointly between federal, state and private companies.

Congress is yet to confirm the administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, leaving the agency – part of Pete Buttigieg’s Department of Transport – in limbo.

In April, Amit Bose was nominated by Biden for the role of administrator.

In October the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee voted to approve his candidacy, but there has not been a full vote to confirm his position. He remains the acting administrator.

At the state level, the Railroad Regulation section is in charge of Virginia’s train tracks.

Part of the Division of Utility and Railroad Safety, according to the state website it ‘conducts inspections of railroad facilities including track and equipment to ensure safe operation of jurisdictional railroads within Virginia.’

In March last year, the governor of Virginia, Ralph Northam, announced a $3.7 billion investment which will see Amtrak, rail company CSX – which operates 20,000 route miles of track in 23 states – and Virginia Railway Express work together to expand and improve passenger, commuter, and freight rail in Virginia.

It was unclear who out of Amtrak, CSX and Virginia’s own rail agencies had responsibilities for clearing the tracks.

In November, CSX said that they had struggled with staffing, but said their hiring had improved.

The transport company was among the myriad of industries hard-hit by ‘the great resignation’, as workers quit their jobs. The pandemic has also caused problems.

‘Train crew shortages that have affected service on Class I railroads this year also have cropped up on short lines, as rail workers seek greener pastures and new hires are hard to find,’ reported Trains.com in November.

‘CSX and Norfolk Southern appear to be hardest hit among the big systems.’

For the motorists stuck on the I-95, Northam said it was simply due to the weather.

‘This was a perfect storm,’ Northam said. ‘We were prepared for a few inches of snow but got a foot. I certainly understand the frustration.’ 

The terrible storm also caused similar delays along the I-95 in Virginia

The terrible storm also caused similar delays along the I-95 in Virginia 

The snowy pile-up between Dumfries Road, which is nearly an hour to Washington, DC, and Carmel Church, only 8mi from the Capitol, began after a six-vehicle crash in Stafford

As travelers reached their 24th hour without food and water, they grew desperate for the National Guard to help them

As travelers reached their 24th hour without food and water, they grew desperate for the National Guard to help them

As of Tuesday morning, Virginia State Police had responded to more than 2,000 traffic crashes and disabled vehicles statewide, state transportation officials said. 

‘First we had rain, which meant that we couldn’t adequately pretreat the roads,’ he told reporters on Tuesday.

‘Then we had slushy snow that fell a lot faster than our snow plows could move it.

‘And then, as night fell, the temperatures dropped below freezing. All those together created the perfect storm for what happened on I-95.’

In addition to the preliminary conditions, multiple tractor-trailers that jackknifed on the highway, further complicated cleanup efforts.

‘When that happens, it’s going to create a mess, and it’s going to take time to clean up, whether it happens in a winter storm or on a sunny summer day,’ Northam said.

Yet suspicion remained that there had been systemic failures. 

‘I am feeling frustrated more than anything,’ said Sean Brocato, 35, who was stuck until Tuesday afternoon as he was trying to drive south to Raleigh, North Carolina.

‘The problem with the entire situation is that the Virginia Department of Transportation did nothing to keep drivers informed,’ he told NBC

‘Was VDOT unaware of the snowstorm? Did they not realize the road conditions?’

In 2018 the Virginia Department of Transportation was exposed as a den of corruption and vice, amid an astonishing trial based on FBI wiretaps.

Seven defendants were convicted, and all said that the corruption was endemic to the culture and more extensive than the scheme that put them behind bars.

‘It is happening now, it will happen in the future,’ contractor John Williamson said before being sentenced to three months in jail.

‘It is rampant, and it is part of the culture of the agency.’

Prosecutor Samantha Bateman told the court that ‘this is a more pervasive problem in the Virginia Department of Transportation than is known.’

The court heard that officials demanded bribes from snowplow drivers in exchange for work, with one regional manager, Anthony Willie, booking into a hotel during a snow storm and trying to get contractors to send women to his room.

He even tried to get one female snowplow driver to pay him a visit, telling her: ‘Don’t bite the hand that feeds you. Because I do extra for who you’re working for and make sure you are going to get yours.’

Willie, the former superintendent of the Virginia Department of Transportation’s Burke Area Headquarters, was sentenced to seven years in prison for his involvement in a bribery scheme involving the awarding of nearly $11 million in snow removal work over the course of more than five years.

In a tweet liked almost 2,000 times, one woman noted: ‘Given the potentially life-threatening situation on I-95 in Virginia, I’d like to remind you that VA DOT is plagued by corruption.

‘In 2018, seven employees pleaded guilty for their roles in an $11 million bribery scheme related to snow removal contracts.’



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