Two Weeks of Travel: Part II, Epic Train Disaster

The second half of my trip was a visit to Staunton, VA, to see my Dad and¬†enjoy small-town church life. I always enjoy taking the Amtrak out there, because it is a really easy way to get to Staunton without a car. The train station is just a few blocks from my dad’s church/house, in a beautiful old-world downtown. It’s sort of like stepping into a period piece–except without horses and their ensuing waste. ūüėČ

The train goes through some beautiful areas of the country: flat farmland in the Midwest, through Ohio and Kentucky and West Virginia, and finally through the Shenandoah to Staunton. It takes about 17 hours–an evening train so you can enjoy dinner and a beer in the cafe car, then sleep through the night, and have a good cup of coffee and a book before getting off in the early afternoon in Staunton.

Train travel is comfortable and easy, but as I discovered last week–when something goes wrong, it goes REALLY wrong.

The first night was beautiful, and everything was normal and on schedule. In Ohio somewhere, we chased an open sky as the sun set behind us. Beams of light reached out after us; the rhythm of the tracks lulled us all into ponderous thoughts.

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After the sun set, we chased one of the most amazing lightning storms I have ever seen. The bolts struck the ground, they exploded in all directions out of the wall of clouds–they took up the whole sky. I never heard any thunder. I just watched as the sky danced. Electric lines that must have been miles long. We never hit the rain. It was just dry lightning for miles and miles. I’ve never seen anything like it.

I slept really well on the train. There’s something about the sound and the movement. It rocks you like a baby. Plus the seats are huge, so you can curl up without too much trouble.

I woke up and had some coffee in the cafe car in the morning, as we were moving through West Virginia. The mountains in West Virginia can be sort of problematic–for roads and for rails. I wrote, journaled, thought. Watched as the back end of villages passed by–watched as we moseyed on by rivers and hills.

About 10 o’clock we came to a harsh halt. There was a rock slide on the tracks–boulders the size of “The Easter Island Heads”, according to the conductor. We were stuck. The tracks could have been damaged; they didn’t know if we could go forward even if they did clear the rocks. The nearest crew was four hours out.

We sat there until easily 4 o’clock–six hours. It took a few hours to figure out what to do. Then a few hours to get new locomotives to bring us back. Then a few hours to get clearance after the freight trains. The masses began to get restless. The crew closed the dining car to distribute “emergency snacks”, which made people more annoyed, because then they couldn’t get up and move around. I think that was probably their first mistake; closing the dining car. The sentiment on the train changed after that.

The plan was to take the train back to Huntington, WV, where it could turn around. They were going to bus us to Charlottesville, VA where we would be put on the other train. (Since the Chicago-bound train couldn’t get through either. We would switch trains.)

It was 7:00 before we were getting on the busses. The crew hadn’t been entirely clear with us; or they kept changing our mind, and their spokesperson was kind and energetic, but not particularly well informed. I felt bad for him. Someone started cussing him out.

My stop was before Charlottesville. It wasn’t clear where I was supposed to go, or what bus was stopping where I was going. No signage, no announcements, and the crew didn’t seem to work together, so we didn’t know who it was we could trust. It was 8:00 when the buses pulled out of the Huntington station, and they didn’t tell us where we were going. Some woman started screaming ‘Where are we going?!” before an Amtrak representative got on the bus to explain what was about to happen. (The driver was unclear and couldn’t tell us what was going on.)

Part of the problem here was the tired people on the bus starting rumors. When no one is in charge, everyone tries to be in charge. This means that everyone decides for themselves what “they” are going to do, and then starts telling everyone else things that aren’t true. It’s human nature. This is why leadership is important in emergency situations. But, we didn’t have anyone really effectively leading–except for that brief moment when an Amtrak representative got on the bus and announced where it was actually going. (And we got that because some¬†of us in the back started yelling when the bus began to pull away.)

It gets better, guys.

About an hour into our trip on the bus, when it is pitch black (9:30, I’d say), we are driving along I-64 in West Virginia. This is an unlit, and very twisty part of the highway in the WV mountains, and it is also a major semi-truck corridor. There is no cell phone signal up here. And, lo and behold, our bus loses electricity and then suddenly shudders to a halt on the side of the road. We’re parked, basically a few feet off the shoulder, at a near 45 degree angle, on a bend. No lights. No signal. No information.

This is where people really started to lose it. The bus has a few lights on the back, but no flares and no hazard markers. The bus driver doesn’t have the contact information for Amtrak, or the other two buses that are going to Charlottesville. He refuses to call the state patrol. He¬†does not communicate anything to the passengers.¬†A few select people (AT&T customers) have cell phone signal. Apparently, he called the bus company in Huntington to send another bus–an hour out. The other two buses parked behind us but left shortly thereafter.

Thank God for people who step up in situations like this. Another one of the women going to Staunton is a calm and effective communicator. A teacher, so she knows how to get things done. She takes charge, along with a couple other aggressive and somewhat more obnoxious people.

There’s a woman having a panic attack. There’s a baby having a complete fit. There’s a diabetic who doesn’t have enough insulin. The woman who steps up to be in charge just happens to look about a million months pregnant (though she assures us it’s only 6). The woman who’s flipping out has two sons; one is thirteen and announces to the entire bus that it’s likely to tip over, and that we should all sit on one side of the bus. His mother is crouching over her younger son staring at and whimpering at every semi that drives by. Another woman next to me just keeps saying to herself “We can’t stay like this, this bus is going to tip over, we can’t do this.”

I spent most of the next hour convincing everyone in the back of the bus that we were not going to tip over, or get hit by a semi, or die in any other way (something that I was relatively sure of, honestly). I felt like there were enough people¬†fighting with the bus driver and trying to be in charge, and so I spent my time calming people down. I usually travel with a flashlight–remnants of habits from international travel–so¬†there was light to find things, go to the bathroom, etc. It was easier for me to feel like I had some sort of purpose to calm the frustration and anxiety about our situation.

It took about an hour to figure out what to do. Someone got in touch with the state patrol via their working cell phone. That calmed folks down–at least there were flashing lights behind us. Eventually we scooted the bus down the road a few miles to a truck stop, where there were toilets and some space to walk around. We waited for about another half an hour for the next bus to arrive.

On a new bus, we finally could relax.¬†It was about midnight. We had all been in transit now for 30 hours. We got on the bus and things calmed down, we made our appropriate stops in Beckley. I fell asleep for the rest of the trip. (I lost my calm after that; got annoyed when we stopped too long in Beckley because everyone wanted to stop and get food. Seriously? Nobody needs food at 1’oclock in the morning–just get us home.)

Finally, finally, finally, around 3:00am, I wake up to the bus slowing down. (I woke up suddenly anytime the bus would slow down, ready to figure out what was wrong next. ) I look out the window and I see “Augusta County” written on some building. That’s the county for Staunton, so I know we’re close…I recognize things–I can see the big red neon sign for the Stonewall Jackson hotel. ALMOST THERE. Praise God, Alhumdullilah.

And then the driver turns AWAY. He turns up some random road. We’re heading back into the country–there’s nothing there. The pregnant woman, who is also getting off at Staunton, turns to me and goes, dumbfounded, “He doesn’t know where he’s going.”

And he didn’t. So she went up to the front of the bus and guided him there with her phone. He pulled a u-turn in the middle of the road, backing up into some service¬†road that he couldn’t even see. It was a comedy of errors. It was just too good for words, really.

By the time we got there, I said goodbye to the woman who had been so helpful. I took off as fast as I could–walked up the hill to my dad’s place. I felt a little bad about running off so quickly, but I just wanted out.

Never in my life have I been through such a ridiculous travel ordeal. I mean, not even in Ghana. We had some weird trips in Ghana, but nothing like this. Nothing with this level of ridiculousness and incompetency. I was so astounded. I was in transit for 33 hours. I arrived 14 hours late. I pitied the poor folks who had to get back on the train in Charlottesville. They had easily 8 more hours to go.

I was surprised at how poorly prepared¬†Amtrak was for the problem. Something that was obnoxious, but out of their control (a rock slide) turned into an ordeal of absolutely epic proportion because of a failure to have a contingency plan of any kind–or¬†any training in calming people down, or any kind of leadership skills. They did give us emergency “rations” essentially, but they weren’t very coordinated on distributing those things, and the closing of the dining car was essentially what set people off. It was all around just a hugely botched situation, and just kept getting worse, like a vortex of some kind.

The next stage of the trip, after the train ordeal, was actually very relaxing and enjoyable, though.


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