As is often the case, there were several contributing factors. The weather was bad, of course, with snow and lousy visibility playing a part. But the real problem was a federal regulation that prohibits operating crews from working more than 12 hours without a break.
On that particular day, the Pere Marquette came to a halt somewhere in Indiana behind a CSX freight that had stopped on the main line because its crew had hit the 12-hour limit. So the Amtrak train, with something like 130 passengers on board, sat there waiting for a CSX relief crew to get the freight moving again. They waited for four hours.
The Pere Marquette finally got moving but, just 25 miles before reaching their final destination in Grand Rapids, the Amtrak crew "went dead". The train was diverted into a CSX yard where it sat waiting more hours for its relief crew to arrive.
There are lots of questions about this incident that need answering, not the least of which is why it took CSX and Amtrak so long to have replacement crews take over those two trains. But, more to the point, wasn’t it absurd that a regulation forced the Amtrak crew to shut down their train when another 30 or 40 minutes would have delivered 130 passengers to their final destination.
Ross Capon, president of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, tells me there is indeed some provision in the rules permitting operating crews to work beyond the 12-hour limit, but to do so results in lots of red tape and possible fines against the railroads.
By all means, let’s run our railroads safely … but there needs to be room for some flexibility and common sense. Ross says NARP and Amtrak are working on that. Good … but it's small consolation for those folks who finally got to Grand Rapids twelve hours late.