THE BLOG

Everyday Heroes on the Northeast Corridor

07/25/2013 04:01 pm ET | Updated Sep 24, 2013

Like many DC dwellers, I sometimes over-commit or am ambitious on the scheduling front. In a town with so much happening, many of us try to be in too many places at once. And a recent trip on the Northeast corridor helped me learn to slow down, and to better appreciate how hard Amtrak's employees work to get us from point A to point B.

Last Friday I was in Philly but hoping to make it from Philly back to DC for a friend's engagement party. My daughters are in theater camp at Philadelphia's Arden theater and spending a few weeks with my parents, and I did not want to miss their 3:00 p.m. performance. So I splurged on the 5:05 pm Acela in hopes that I could get back to DC in time for the engagement party.

When I arrived at 30th Street Station, it was close to 100 degrees outside, and every train in both directions was delayed due to the extreme heat. Trains seemed to be breaking down everywhere. I hopped on train 83, a delayed Northeast Regional that allowed me to leave Philadelphia earlier than scheduled and that predicted a 6:20 pm arrival in DC.

Now, I've been down this road before -- two summer ago in another heatwave I sat in the station for two hours before boarding my scheduled train -- and I knew that between the extreme heat and the Friday rush hour crowds, a lot could go wrong.

Sure enough, 20 minutes before arriving in Baltimore, the train lost electrical power. The conductor explained that, due to the heat, the train would have to stop while the engineer tried to re-start the lights and the air conditioning as the cars would get too hot if the train kept moving. The engineer was able to re-start the AC relatively quickly, and it took about an hour to fully restore the power needed to get the train moving again. We dropped many happy passengers off in Baltimore and I emailed my husband to let him know I was getting closer to DC. My email was, unfortunately, premature. The train lost power again just before arriving at BWI.

This time the conductor informed us that both of the train's engines were out and they were calling for a replacement engine. In the meantime, they stopped a Marc train next to us. So the entire Northeast corridor was completely blocked in both directions. While waiting, we heard an explosive boom that shook the train. We were soon told that a replacement engine was no longer an option. Instead, we would need to do a train-to-train transfer.

Not surprisingly, I was focused on my disappointment and frustration about missing my plans. I dealt by doing what everyone around me was doing; I sent tons of negative emails about how lame Amtrak is, and I hoped my phone would not lose power.

However, the process of transferring trains turned out to be truly unforgettable. Watching two conductors help senior citizens and other disabled passengers get themselves and their luggage across the bridge connecting the trains was extraordinary. In spite of extreme heat interspersed with thunder and rain, they moved hundreds of passengers; throughout the process they were kind and they were professional.

While I was close to the doorway and the conductor, an official interrupted the transfer to say he needed to interview the conductor "about the engineer." He explained that since the engineer had been evacuated via ambulance, an interview would be necessary. Due to my proximity to the discussion (we were packed together like sardines so giving them privacy was not an option) I learned that the engine had exploded while the engineer was working to fix it. I also learned that the engineer did not want to seek medical attention -- his eardrums seemed to be damaged, he was in a lot of pain, and yet he wanted to keep trying to fix the train so that Amtrak's passengers could get where they needed to go! His friend and colleague had to insist that he stop. This same colleague who begged his friend get medical attention was also dismissive of the obvious back injury he suffered himself while carrying so many bags over the bridge in the heat and the rain. He could barely walk, was soaked in sweat, but refused to complain.

I embarked on train 83 hoping to achieve the common Washington goal of being in two places at once. I loved my daughters' play and would not have missed it for the world. I also love my friends and wanted to celebrate their upcoming marriage. However, my experience on train 83 that evening reminded me that sometimes we cannot be in two places at once. Sometimes we are so busy rushing for point A to point B that we fail to appreciate how many people around us make extremely difficult jobs look easy. My two hour trip took five hours and involved more stops on the Marc train that I would like to count. And I developed a new level of appreciation for everyday heroes along the way. (I missed the engagement party but made it in time for the after-party which was even better!)