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‘My feet were numb’: Amtrak passengers stuck for hours without heat

With a winter storm raging Thursday, JetBlue, Southwest, and Delta had canceled every flight that would take Andy Earley from Nashville to Logan Airport. To his relief, there was another way home — he could still get a flight to Philadelphia, then take a red-eye Amtrak train to Boston’s South Station.

The train ran smoothly from Philadelphia to New York on its way to Boston, departing Penn Station on schedule around 2:40 a.m. on Friday. Its weary passengers figured they would wake up in South Station. But just a few miles out of Penn Station, the train came to a halt and fell dark. Looking to his left, Earley saw they were still in the Bronx.

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Without power, the train got colder. A few rows up, Earley’s coworker Jen Schumacher woke up shivering. On another car, Kurt Hellauer awoke in the darkness, too. He could hear the snores of other passengers, but no train engine.

A minor delay, passengers assumed. But the 160 riders aboard Northeast Regional Train 66, an overnight train from Washington, D.C., to Boston, would wind up stranded for more than four hours with no heat, no light, and little information.

“Nobody knew what was going on,” Schumacher said. “There was nothing we could do. We were stuck.”

Amtrak apologized for the ordeal, which was caused by problems with the overhead wire power, according to spokesman Mike Tolbert.

“Today we fell short of providing the outstanding service that customers should expect from Amtrak, and we are sorry for the delay and the significant inconvenience, including the loss of heat onboard,” Amtrak chief operations officer Scot Naparstek said in a statement. “We also regret that some passengers did not receive adequate information about the situation while we worked to fix the problems.”

Passenger Kurt Hellauer of Andover arrived atSouth Station on Friday, about five hours late.
Passenger Kurt Hellauer of Andover arrived atSouth Station on Friday, about five hours late. (David L. Ryan/Globe Staff)

The train was barely 10 miles out of Penn Station when it lost power, and about 10 miles away from another stop in New Rochelle, N.Y. But the stretch of track where it came to a halt was only accessible by train or maintenance vehicle, Tolbert said.

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About 20 minutes after the train lost power, a crew member announced that a wire was down. Earley, who often travels from his Atkinson, N.H., home for work, wasn’t particularly worried at first. The cabin was dark, except for the dim emergency lights along the aisles, so he used his cellular phone to work on his paper expense reports.

But as time passed, Earley grew frustrated with the lack of updates. He was hoping to ask someone, but in the darkness couldn’t tell who was a crew member.

Around 4 a.m., another announcement came over the speakers: A train with a diesel engine was coming. Passengers shouldn’t move from car to car, the voice said, because it was letting gusts of cold air in.

At that point, the few passengers who were awake realized they might be there for a while. Hellauer texted his wife and a coworker who would need to fill in for him at meetings later that morning. Earley texted his managing director to let him know.

All the while, the temperature kept dropping, the cold rushing in with each opening of the train door. A few rows ahead of Earley, Schumacher bundled up in her sweater. Earley and Schumacher had gone to Nashville for work, so she was dressed in thin Converse sneakers and leggings.

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“My feet were numb,” she said.

Without the power, the toilets couldn’t flush. As they filled up, passengers tried their best to avoid them.

At some point, Amtrak announced there would be free food and drinks in the cafe car, Hellauer said. Slowly, people woke up to the realization that they were still hours away from Boston.

As the hours passed, Earley’s patience wore thin. He began pacing up and down the car, stopping at the door so he wouldn’t let the cold in. With no end in sight, he confronted an employee in an Amtrak jacket.

“I stopped him, and I said, ‘What’s going on?’” he said. “‘It’s starting to get a little colder, and it seems like that diesel engine should already be here.’”

The worker told him he didn’t know much either, but said that the train might be having problems with its brakes.

Finally, a little after 7 a.m., crews got the power working, Tolbert said. About 20 minutes later, it was on its way to New Rochelle, where everyone eventually got off.

Passengers were left freezing on a windswept platform. Desperate to stay warm, some ran in place or did jumping jacks, Hellauer said.

“When they finally took us to New Rochelle and they took everyone off the platform, we again weren’t informed about what was going on,” Earley said. “We had handicapped people that we were trying to help. We had no crew out there. It was really very unfortunate.”

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When the replacement train, Northeast Regional 190, finally arrived, passengers packed inside like sardines, they said.

Earley had to stand in a bathroom, and decided he could only stand so much. He got off in Stamford, Conn., to catch another express train to Boston.

Most other passengers stuck it out. By the time they made it to South Station, well after noon and nearly five hours late, some had been on a train for more than 12 hours. Schumacher, who lives in Charlestown, said she had never been so happy to be back in Boston. “I’d rather be back in a blizzard than be on that train,” she said.


Nicole Dungca can be reached at nicole.dungca@globe.com.