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Deep freeze strands rail, air travelers nationwide

January 7, 2014 - 10:19pm

CHICAGO — The Amtrak train slowed to a crawl as it hammered through snowdrifts in an empty stretch of Illinois countryside, delivering thuds and jolts to passengers, until it lurched into a mound big enough to grind its 8,000-horsepower engine to a halt.

About 90 miles short of their Chicago destination, passengers ended up stuck on the train overnight, reading books, watching movies on computers and taking what amusement they could from a conductor who cracked jokes over the intercom. Food ran low and some tempers boiled over, but staff kept the heat on, entertained children and even escorted small groups of people outside for smoke breaks.

“You hear those horror stories about the cars that stop in the snow and they freeze to death. I thought, ‘Oh God, this is going to happen, we’re going to be in blankets,’” said passenger Chris Smith.

They weren’t alone. Across huge swaths of the country, the polar vortex froze travel and left motorists, airline passengers and commuters fighting to stay in motion and, when that failed, fighting to stave off boredom and cold. Airlines again canceled several thousand flights Tuesday, as the extreme cold slowed everything from baggage-handling to refueling. On the roads, powerful winds pushing snow into desert-like dunes forced authorities to shut major highways, including a 75-mile stretch of Interstate 81 north of Syracuse, N.Y., to the Canadian border.

The snowbound train stuck near the tiny village of Arlington in north-central Illinois was one of three Amtrak trains carrying a total of 500 passengers that got stuck in the state overnight. Amtrak officials eventually got them to safety, then bused them to their destinations.

Airlines and airports continued to suffer under the strain of the cold Tuesday, though conditions appeared to be slowly improving. More than 2,500 flights had been canceled by late afternoon Tuesday, an improvement from Monday’s 4,100 cancellations, according to tracking service flightaware.com

United Airlines still was operating reduced schedules at its hubs in Chicago, Cleveland and Newark, N.J., partly because it was dangerous for ramp workers to be loading bags outside in the extreme cold.

JetBlue said that by midafternoon, it was operating a full schedule of flights at Kennedy, LaGuardia, Newark, N.J., and Boston’s Logan Airport after suspending flights there late Monday.

The Associated Press

Chief operating officer Rob Maruster said of the temporary shutdown, “We own it … and I think we have to make it right” with displaced passengers. The airline is offering travel vouchers of varying amounts.

Travel industry analyst Henry Harteveldt said he thought JetBlue did the right thing and avoided having thousands of passengers possibly stranded at frozen airports. Passengers were inconvenienced, he said, but at least got to stay warm at home or at a hotel instead of “stuck on a plane going nowhere.”

It was a flight cancellation that led Chicago high school teacher Rob Chambers, his husband and mother-in-law to take the train back to Chicago after the couple got married in Delaware, where same-sex marriage is legal. But their trip came to a halt in Indianapolis for more than a day because tracks were closed by heavy, blowing snow.

“We’re calling it the honeymoon ride home and here we are stuck in Indianapolis,” Chambers said by cellphone.


Associated Press writers Ashley Heher in Chicago and David Koenig in Dallas contributed to this report.

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