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For $3,500, a Most Putrid Stench

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Nov 25, 2019
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It's unfortunate that this bad experience is what brings me to the forums, but alas, here goes...!

Earlier this fall we made our 3rd cross-country Amtrak trip, from NYP to CHI & from CHI to LAX. The 1st leg of the trip to CHI was splendid; but on the 2nd leg to LAX, it wasn't long till we caught a whiff of what smelled like aerated toilet water in our bedroom -- a reek that could be described as pure sulfurous putrefaction. AND it came like clockwork every number of minutes.

So we pull aside our attendant, and he tells us he doesn't smell anything. :rolleyes: A while later we ask again, after some older folks have been going up & down the hallway also complaining, and the explanation he gives is that it's the sewage system airing to the outside on a timed basis.

All in all, we ate & slept (unsuccessfully) under this stench the whole trip. It was everywhere, even in the viewing car, but less noticeable in coach. My father, Amtrak naysayer #1, agreed to make the trip for the 1st time, and it offered him vindication. He was damning me all the way home! :D

For the asking prices, Amtrak has got to figure something out. My past 2 trips were fine, so I doubt suddenly the toilets are venting outside. Too bad I didn't have a chance to call Amtrak and complain at the time.
 

Devil's Advocate

Sarcastic Misanthrope
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This has happened to me many times as well and I agree that its absolutely worth a travel voucher call. Amtrak Superliner plumbing is shockingly bad, probably as designed but definitely as maintained, and yet you rarely hear about it here on the forums relative to all the other complaints. You'd think the people who bring up employee hardships would mention this more often since it's probably worthy of hazard pay.
 
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me_little_me

Conductor
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If that train was leaking sewage, it likely was in violation of the law. They might have been reluctant to admit anything so they could get it back to the shop before they got caught.
 

Devil's Advocate

Sarcastic Misanthrope
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If that train was leaking sewage, it likely was in violation of the law. They might have been reluctant to admit anything so they could get it back to the shop before they got caught.
The sewage problem has been going on for at least a decade and none of this is getting fixed in any shop. Superliners were never designed to retain sewage; they were designed to leave it on the tracks. The retention retrofit does not function dependably and will not be resolved unless and until some sort of "Superliner III" is delivered.
 
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neroden

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Ithaca, NY
Some history which I just researched.

(Edited due to digging really deep.)


The retention toilet legal mandate was being discussed in 1990 (Amtrak was aware of the upcoming requirement) and the law required that newly-delivered trains have retention toilets (or biological/chemical methods which avoided dumping of raw waste) starting in 1992. As a result, the Superliner IIs (ordered in 1991, delivered in 1993 and later) were designed and delivered with retention toilets -- the changes were made at the design stage where other parts could be moved out of the way to make room.

The Superliner Is were, indeed, retrofitted (the law gave Amtrak until 1996 to do the retrofits), and I'm not surprised there were issues with the retrofit which lead to relatively frequent failures.

Apparently the Amfleets were already compliant, despite no legal requirement at the time of their construction, which is interesting. There must have been pressure to install non-"dump" toilets already before 1973 when the first Amfleet was ordered, which makes it curious that the Superliner Is were ordered without retention toilets in 1975.

Digging deeper, I find that apparently in the mid-1970s the available tech was considered to be good enough for short-distance retention but not for long-distance retention.

By 1980 when the Amfleet IIs were ordered, the tech was considered good enough for long-distance. Amtrak still bitched about retrofitting the Superliner Is in 1990, so apparently the problem of retrofitting as opposed to designing new really made it a lot harder.

-----
Further research.

The original law prohibiting dumping was on the tracks came from a regulation which applied to new equipment in 1971 and mandating retrofits by 1974. However, no retrofits were available so the retrofits didn't happen. But this is why the Amfleet Is have retention toilets.

In 1976, Amtrak managed to get an exemption from the Public Health Service Act inserted into the law, which is why Superliner Is dumped on the tracks (!!!!). The exemption only applied to "intercity" service, which is probably why the Amfleet IIs (intermittently put into commuter service) were still ordered with retention toilets. The Superliner I order is still an oddity, and seems to have been illegal at the time it was ordered; the 1976 law change was probably designed to retroactively legalize the Superliner Is.

The 1992 retention toilet mandate was the second attempt, and this one stuck.
 
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RSG

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Ima gonna add nose plugs to my travel list.
Might take more than that; do what mortuary and morgue personnel do and bring along Vicks Vapo-Rub to place a small amount under the nose. (I believe it has been mentioned on this board previously in order to distract from other unpleasant odors in coach--such as food odors.)
 

ChuckL

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Redford, Michigan
I had the same bad experience in a Superliner 1 roomette on the EB in October. The car attendant said it happens frequently. What made matters worse was that the car’s ventilation system wasn’t working. The stench made me so nauseated that I thought I was going to get sick, so I left the car for a walk through the train. At one point the car lost power. When it came back on, the fans started working and that helped a little.

I emailed customer service about my experience and received an apology and statement that Amtrak prioritizes health and safety for their passengers. i wrote back and stated I had requested some type of compensation for what was a hefty room charge. A day later, I received a second apology email with a voucher for $100 and hope that I would continue using Amtrak after my many years of rail travel. Although I had hoped for more, at least it was something. I only wish Amtrak could follow cruise lines practice of adding a deodorizer to their holding tanks to alleviate the issue.
 

EchoSierra

Train Attendant
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Ooooh yeah. I've taken the Pacific Surfliner once where they were running late so they turned it at San Diego as quickly as they could. I don't think they pumped the toilets at San Diego anyway, but the whole train reeked of chemical toilet. Thankfully, I had a short ride and got off at Oceanside. (I took Amtrak because Coaster had stopped running for the evening at this point)
 

railiner

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The original Superliner’s were equipped with a “macerator”, that liquefied all raw sewage before spraying it on to the tracks.
It sounded like a siren when it operated, and only discharged above a certain speed, to protect station’s. In addition, it had an “Inhibit switch”, to prevent discharge in sensitive location’s...

As for cruise ships... modern cruise ships have complete wastewater treatment plants on board, that remove all solids into pellets that are incinerated and removed when docked, but the liquid has been thoroughly treated into “safe enough to drink” standards, and then is legally discharged into the sea.
 
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F900ElCapitan

Lead Service Attendant
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In September we experienced this a few times too. On 22 into Chicago the bedrooms on the SL1 were getting a little bit of smell, fortunately we didn’t smell anything in the roomettes. On 4, the coaches and SSL (mixed SL1 & 2) got enough smell that the conductor made a whole train announcement. They said they were going to look into it during our stretch-stop in Raton, but I didn’t see them open any panels or try to address the problem. Then on 21 out of Chicago we were in a bedroom in a SL2 and got the same smell as the OP. Our car attendant Ernesto figured it was whenever the air conditioning was cycling on. I’m not sure if that was it or not, but it definitely got worse as the trip went along. There were a few other instances on other trains and I’ve been in Fort Worth when 21 and 22 meet and I’ve heard mainly bedroom passengers complain about the smell and more times than not the issue has been on the SL2’s.

I did notice on the CZs and on the SWC, our car attendants were judicious about spraying an air freshener/sanitizer all day long. I’m not sure if this was related but it couldn’t have hurt.

But I agree, Amtrak really should track this issue down and fix it. Even if these cars will be replaced. It’s happening way too often and souring too many people to train travel.
 

Maglev

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I have smelled this before, but not in a room I was occupying.

Do we need to start carrying some kind of deodorizer in our Amtrak tool kit? Seriously, any suggestions? I have some old cologne from when I worked for Liberty House in Hawaii...
 

F900ElCapitan

Lead Service Attendant
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The best sterilizer that I know of is Ozium. But when it’s the air conditioning system that’s circulating the smell, I don’t know would be the best place to spray. The best would probably be to spray in the tank compartment but of course we don’t have access to that. I would just like to know how exactly it’s permeating into the pax areas.
 

dlagrua

Conductor
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Where is the funding for new Superliners and why is the issue seldom brought up before congress? Those rail cars, some of which are 45 years old were not designed to last forever.
 

Bob Dylan

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When I'm in the station, I have no qualms about flushing the toilet and I'm sure other people around me do the same.
He was referring to the Heritage Cars that dumped the toliets Straight to the Ground. Lots of car attendants locked the Bathrooms while the Train was stopped @ the Stations.
 
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Dakota 400

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He was referring to the Heritage Cars that dumped the toliets Straight to the Ground./QUOTE]

As a child, I remember those and was fascinated by being able to watch the passing railroad ties through the bottom of the toilet after I flushed it. I also remember that sign and recall one time when I was "caught" in the loo during a station stop. I sat on the pot for what seemed like forever before the train started moving again.
 

Rasputin

OBS Chief
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It seems that most of the complaints involve superliner bedrooms. Does the odor issue primarily tend to happen in bedrooms and not roomettes?
 

Maglev

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It seems that most of the complaints involve superliner bedrooms. Does the odor issue primarily tend to happen in bedrooms and not roomettes?
The bedrooms, toilets, showers, and handicapped room with plumbing are all in the same end of the car. The end with roomettes has no plumbing, except for the upstairs toilet near the bedrooms.
 

Rasputin

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The bedrooms, toilets, showers, and handicapped room with plumbing are all in the same end of the car. The end with roomettes has no plumbing, except for the upstairs toilet near the bedrooms.
Thanks for pointing that out. This sounds like a great rationale for travelling by roomette.
 
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