WASHINGTON – The Rail Passengers Association has asked the Federal Railroad Administration to ensure a speedy safety debriefing and review of the 19-hour service disruption October 7th aboard Amtrak’s westbound Wolverine service #351, to permit Association staff to serve as observers, and to share the results of that review with the public.
In a letter addressed to FRA Administrator Amit Bose, Association President & CEO Jim Mathews noted that even though the cascading series of failures on the Wolverine service did not result in a collision, a derailment, or a fatality, the risk of serious harm to passengers as the incident unfolded was quite real – a risk that grew substantially once passengers elected to self-evacuate from the train.
Amtrak blamed several mechanical failures for what became a thirteen-hour delay, with passengers stranded for many hours at a time at various points on a train without heat, ventilation, lights, food, or working toilets. After a two-hour delay just outside Chicago in Gary, Indiana, at 10 p.m. local time passengers took matters into their own hands, opening the doors themselves, letting themselves off the train, crossing three sets of active Class I freight tracks, wading across a small gully in waist-high grass in the dark alongside the disabled train to reach a busy highway where passengers hoped to catch ride-hailing cars.
In video of the incident provided to the Association by one of the passengers, some passengers can be heard discussing how best to cross the busy highway, waiting for a gap in the traffic to jump across jersey barriers in the middle of the roadway. The Association has shared this video with Amtrak and regulators.
“I had a cordial, productive, but candid meeting with Amtrak leadership this week to share our concerns, and to pose questions about Amtrak’s response to these incidents,” RPA’s Mathews said. “Their response was expansive, informative, and sincere. They clearly recognize the seriousness of what occurred. But with so many open questions remaining about how the incident was handled, how alternate arrangements were considered, and how poorly passengers understood what was happening, we feel an obligation in representing our members and the traveling public to elevate our request for a formal debriefing and review whose results, with appropriate redaction of personally identifiable information, can be shared with the public.”
Under existing Federal regulations, incidents like these require the railroad to conduct a safety debrief within 60 days whose principal purpose is not to assign blame but to understand how well, or not, the railroad responded to protect passenger safety, and to determine whether and how any pre-built response plans need to be improved or modified.
Passenger rail and public transportation are economic engines creating a safe, reliable, affordable mobility web connecting students to colleges, elderly to family and healthcare, workers with economic opportunity and communities to locally driven investment. Time and again, the Association has been able to demonstrate returns on investment to rail-served communities of anywhere from four times to as much as 10 times the annual Federal operating cost. These kinds of benefits are what Congress intended to foster when it passed the historic five-year Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, allocating $66 billion taxpayer-supplied dollars to rail investment. We believe reassuring those taxpayers about passenger rail safety is an important part of realizing this congressional intent.