Whistleblower: Amtrak left pair on the tracks in Minnesota

  • Article by: KELLY SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 9, 2012 - 8:17 PM

When two women missed their stop, Amtrak just let them off -- 2 miles north of St. Cloud. The company says the crew violated its policy and is investigating.

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The Empire Builder at the St. Paul Amtrak station.

Photo: Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

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The crew of the Amtrak Empire Builder thought they were doing their passengers a favor. Vivian Rhode, 75, and her niece Peggy Larson, 64, had missed their stop in St. Cloud, and the next station was about three hours away.

So at 1 a.m. March 28, the train made an unscheduled stop 2 miles north of St. Cloud. Rhode and Larson took their luggage and stepped into the windy, cold night.

"We were right smack on the railroad track, and away they went," Rhode said.

Only then did Rhode and Larson realize that the Amtrak crew didn't tell them when they had reached their destination and compounded the trouble by leaving them in the middle of nowhere.

An Amtrak spokesman said the crew failed to follow the company's policy of notifying passengers of their stop; after 10 p.m., station announcements are not given on a PA system.

"It's our job to get them to their stop," said Marc Magliari, Amtrak spokesman. "It looks like it wasn't properly carried out. What the crew chose to do is not standard procedure."

If passengers miss their stop, the company's policy is to bring them to the next staffed station -- which in this case would have been Fargo, N.D. -- and then pay for a taxi or other transportation to get passengers back to their destination, Magliari said. Supervisors are following up with the employees who handled the situation, he added.

Rhode, of Onamia, Minn., and Larson, of Superior, Wis., were riding the Amtrak sleeper car March 28 after a weekend trip to visit Rhode's son in Michigan. They had chosen the 14-hour Amtrak route from Ann Arbor to Chicago to St. Cloud so they could chat and enjoy the train ride. In her previous trips on Amtrak, Rhode had no trouble getting to her destination.

"We always liked Amtrak and we thought heck ... we could sit in our little roomette and have a good visit," she said.

They were sleeping in the train car when a crew member knocked on their door to wake them, telling them that their stop was approaching. No one returned to tell the pair to retrieve their luggage and exit the train, Rhode said. "We were just sitting there waiting," she said.

Two miles away, in the middle of the countryside, a crew member told the women that they'd missed the station, but that they could stop the train and let them off.

Rhode said they agreed because they didn't know that they were in a rural area until they exited the train, standing with their luggage on the crushed rocks of the train tracks.

They walked to stand underneath a nearby bridge to shelter them from the brisk wind, Rhode said. She couldn't call her husband because he didn't have a phone.

"I don't know how we'd explain to 911 where we were," she said.

Worried, her husband borrowed a phone and called Rhode, who explained they were under a bridge somewhere in the country. Another person waiting at the station to pick up a passenger who didn't get off the train knew the area and told Rhode's husband how to get to the bridge, she said.

Amtrak serves 30 million passengers each year, and Magliari said situations like this are rare.

Rhode was offered a voucher after she wrote a letter to Amtrak complaining about the experience, but she said she didn't accept it.

Next time she visits her son, she said, she will take a car or a plane.

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141 • Twitter: @kellystrib

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