Amtrak Auto Train passengers reported limited access to food, bathrooms, and medical care aboard the train delayed by 20 hours, with some riders resorting to calling 911 amid the confusion that elicited a fear of being held hostage.
Hundreds of passengers aboard an Amtrak Auto Train from Virginia to Florida faced a long delay in their journey due to another train derailing, with one passenger describing it as the “train ride from hell.”
During what turned into a 37-hour-long journey, railroad passengers reported limited access to food, bathrooms, and medical care, as well as the limited ability for pet owners to disembark, resulting in feces on train floors.
There was also defecation found in one of the bathroom floors, according to one woman who said the train, filled with irate passengers, ran out of water.
Despite Amtrak’s claim that it regularly updated customers and provided additional meals and beverages, numerous passengers reported bad conditions and confusion, with some dialing 911 to report being held hostage aboard the delayed train.
U.S. Senators Richard Blumenthal, Maria Cantwell, Ben Cardin, and Edward J. Markey sent a letter to Amtrak CEO Stephen Gardner demanding answers about the incident that experienced extreme delays and an explanation of the company’s policies to ensure adequate customer treatment.
“I’m proud to serve for a President who rode Amtrak to work for decades, a President who knows how important infrastructure is to people’s lives, and is willing to make the bold choice,” said Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg but on the day when hundreds of passengers were stuck, his only social media post was addressed to passengers seeking refunds and reimbursements from Southwest Airlines, whose customers experienced disrupted holiday travel from December 24, 2022, through January 2, 2023.
Amtrak travelers heading to Sanford, Florida from Lorton, Virginia on Monday night spent a lot more time on the rails than they bargained for prior to their arrival at the train’s final destination more than 20 hours later than scheduled.
The Auto Train is a 900-mile train service that goes from Lorton, Virginia, to Sanford, Florida. As a motorail, it allows passengers to transport their vehicles — be it an SUV, a motorcycle, or a jetski — along for the ride.
Amtrak advertises the service as a 17-and-a-half-hour journey, which cuts through rural scenes of North and South Carolina.
The train left Fairfax County, Virginia about 5 p.m. Monday, with an expected arrival time of 10 a.m. Tuesday.
But the train didn’t pull into the Florida station until about 6:20 a.m. on Wednesday — meaning passengers spent over 36 hours on the train in total.
The immense delay was caused by a freight train with at least 20 cars that derailed in Lake City, South Carolina at about 8 p.m. on Monday. No one was injured in the derailment, but the blockage on the tracks left Auto Train 53 passengers stopped overnight in Hamlet, North Carolina.
At 8 a.m. on Tuesday — two hours before passengers should have arrived in Sanford — Auto Train 53 started moving again.
Then, at 3 p.m. Tuesday, the train stopped a second time in Denmark, North Carolina. The long delay meant the Amtrak crew had timed out of their shifts, and could not continue working.
The train restarted its journey again late on Tuesday, after a new Amtrak crew boarded at least six hours later than expected. Passengers finally arrived in Sanford just before 6:30 a.m. on Wednesday.
“While we understand the train was rerouted to avoid an incident on the track and that Amtrak must abide by hours of service laws, it is difficult to imagine a sufficient justification for the distressing conditions passengers described experiencing,” wrote the senators, who complained that this is not the first time passengers described dire conditions amid long delays aboard the Auto Train.
“Last January, after a severe winter storm, a northbound Auto Train’s journey took about 30 hours – and passengers reported similar experiences on board: poor communication of the train’s status and limited food and water,” wrote the senators. “It is alarming that passengers are suffering the same insufficient treatment during a similar situation more than a year later.”
“Just before 11:00 p.m. Monday, a CSX freight train came in contact with an unoccupied vehicle on the tracks at Charles Street in Lake City, SC resulting in the derailment of 25 rail cars and two locomotives,” said a CSX spokesperson. “The locomotives remained upright. There were no injuries to the crew of the train and no hazardous materials involved. CSX crews safely cleared the tracks and train operations resumed at reduced speeds around 5 p.m. Tuesday.”
On Monday, January 11, 563 passengers boarded the Auto Train—including children and the elderly—only to encounter a 37-hour-long delay.
Twitter user Jeff Branzburg posted on Jan 3, 2020, “Amtrak app says today’s Auto Train from Lorton is leaving on time. I’m at the station, and at 1:15 they announced a two-hour delay to 6 pm. Now it’s after 2:40, but the app still says 4 pm estimated departure. Please update the app appropriately!”
“Where is the alert for the auto-train 53? We have been waiting for a replacement crew for one and a half hours after being stopped for 6 hours. No communication or updates from the crew. We feel trapped inside this thing,” said another tweet posted on August 29, 2022.
Social media posts also revealed passenger complaints about delays on the same line for October 19, 2022, October 28, 2021, March 26, 2020, and many more.
In October, an Amtrak trip from Detroit to Chicago that was supposed to take about five hours took 19 hours, leaving passengers stuck without electricity, water or food.
Amtrak’s Auto Train debuted in 1983. The concept of taking your automobile on vacation without having to drive it was so popular that the company received more than 400 requests for reservations before it had even decided to start the service.
In 2021, the service provided close to 200,000 passenger trips. The service is marketed today as “a stress-free journey by rail, skipping the traffic congestion on I-95.”
According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than one in five Amtrak trains were late in 2021.