A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To ‘Joe Biden’ Station: Federal Railroad Officials Abandon Stranded Train

Mar 19, 2011 2:16pm

ABC News’ Michael Falcone reports:

ABOARD ACELA EXPRESS #2250 — Amtrak President and CEO Joseph Boardman had an appointment to keep, and he wasn’t going to let the massive power outage that occurred Saturday on his rail line’s Northeast Corridor stop him.

And, neither were Federal Railroad Administration chief Joseph Szabo or Amtrak board member Jeff Moreland.

The three were expected at the gala unveiling of the newly re-named “Joe Biden” train station in Wilmington, Delaware Saturday afternoon but they found themselves among the thousands of other Amtrak passengers who were temporarily stranded on trains along the popular Washington, DC to New York route.

So, Boardman, Szabo and Moreland — who heard just hours before that Vice President Biden was slated to make an unscheduled appearance at Saturday’s event — abandoned a stranded Acela Express train at Baltimore’s Penn Station where an awaiting car ferried them to Wilmington.

“You want to hold your head and say ‘just what we needed today,’” Boardman said in an interview with ABC News later Saturday afternoon. “We would not have gotten off the train if we could have sequenced it faster, but the event would have been over … and that’s the evaluation we made.”

The three railroad leaders, who were seated comfortably in the train’s First Class car and had just finished a light breakfast when the train suddenly stopped and lost power just after 9:30 a.m., were escorted from the coach by security guards and a small entourage of assistants.

When Boardman walked past a reporter who pointed out that it seemed like a “bad sign” to see the railroad’s chief executive jump ship, he chuckled. Before he exited Boardman had been receiving updates on the siutation by phone and in-person from the train's crew.

In a follow-up interview, however, Boardman said he felt obligated not to miss the event, billed in an Amtrak press release as a “celebration” for the public to mark the re-naming of the station for Biden, a long-time Amtrak rider and rail aficionado who helped steer more than $1.3 billion in federal stimulus money to the system.

“I thought it was required of myself to be there,” Boardman said.

Boardman told ABC News it was an “emotional” moment for the Vice President — who says he has taken more than 7,000 roundtrips between Washington and Delaware over the years. Joining Biden at the event were his wife and a throng of children and grandchildren.

What the rail company’s CEO and his counterparts left behind was a train that remained stranded in Baltimore for more than two-and-a-half hours as Amtrak engineers scrambled to repair a broken transformer outside of Philadelphia. The train, like many others, lost electricity, including the power to flush toilets. Passengers were allowed to stretch their legs on the station’s platform.

Others followed the railroad officials’ lead — frantically arranging to rent cars or find transportation to an airport. The train that the three were riding, which left Washington at 9 a.m. began moving again at 12:28 p.m. — roughly 2 hours and 45 minutes behind schedule.

Boardman said the incident highlighted the need to overhaul the entire power system along the Northeast Corridor — the busiest in the country.

“If we’re going to really grow the Corridor the way it needs to be grown, he said, "we have to substantially increase the amount of power that’s available so that we don’t trip these transformers.”

He said Amtrak recently filed an application with the Federal Railroad Administration to make such improvements.

The Wilmington station, which now bears Biden’s name, recently underwent a two-year $37 million renovation, paid for with a combination of funds from Amtrak, the government's stimulus program and the state of Delaware. Saturday’s event featured tours of the station, “food and refreshments” and even a performance by the Wilmington Children’s’ Chorus.

But, just like the many Amtrak passengers whose trains were delayed or canceled by the service disruption, Boardman’s day did not go according to plan either.

“We still got here late,” he said.

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