A deadly Amtrak derailment in Montana over the weekend left passengers stranded at St. Paul's Union Depot, where all westbound trains from Chicago now end until at least Tuesday or when the derailment site is cleared.
Elena Gubina, 67, of North Potomac, Md., purchased a vacation package through Amtrak that was to take her from Chicago to Seattle, then Los Angeles and New Orleans. Instead, she was sitting in St. Paul on Sunday with no sleep for more than 24 hours.
"They told me the train would go today," Gubina said. "I asked the ticket agent whether it would be safe. He told me that the [Depot] is very safe … I told him I'm talking about rails. I was doubtful they will be able to repair the rails so fast after such a huge derailment.
"But I believed them and instead of just taking the plane and moving on, I'm stranded here."
Gubina, who is Russian, found out about the derailment that killed at least three passengers and injured dozens during dinner on her ride to St. Paul. Once she arrived at the depot around 9 p.m., she was given two options: stay here or go to Minot, N.D. She stayed — per the recommendation of an Amtrak employee — and her train was rebooked for Sunday evening. She wasn't told that she wouldn't be able to go farther than Minot.
The last westbound train from St. Paul left on schedule to Minot on Saturday at 10:20 p.m., but that was as far west as the train went. It's unclear when the derailment site near Joplin in Montana will be cleared for trains to travel west beyond that point.
In a statement Sunday, Amtrak said beginning Sunday and until Tuesday, all westbound Empire Builder trains scheduled to depart Chicago will terminate in St. Paul due to the derailment of eight cars on the Empire Builder train traveling westbound from Chicago to Seattle/Portland around 4 p.m. Saturday. During that same time frame, eastbound Empire Builder trains will not operate between Seattle/Portland and St. Paul. The eastbound Empire Builder train that departed Seattle on Saturday and the Empire Builder train that departed Portland on Saturday were canceled between Shelby and Minot.
Bill Levering, 44, of Atlanta, has been traveling on Amtrak the past month after recently retiring from the Navy. He said the canceled train has created a "panic situation" for some — like a mother and son who were without money for food or lodging — but he's a more laid-back, flexible traveler.
When the train stopped in St. Paul on Saturday night, he said about 100 passengers were stuck with no accommodations made by Amtrak. He chose to sleep two nights at the station to allow those in more dire straits to rebook first while he waits to make it to Portland by way of Chicago and Los Angeles.
"[Amtrak] is in an emergency situation," he said. "I'm sure they got people stranded — hundreds of people — at other stations as well. I see they're trying to work through it the best they can. Do I think they need a better emergency plan in place? Probably."
He said stranded passengers need to be cared for, but he's more concerned about those who were on the derailed train, which had 17 crew members and 141 passengers, including Megan Vandervest, of Minneapolis, who boarded the Empire Builder on Friday in St. Paul with a friend. Vandervest, who did not respond to a request for comment, shared on social media that she and her friend "feel lucky to be alive."
"I've done all the talking I feel comfortable doing and am ready to take a break from reliving the experience to enjoy time with my friends," she wrote in a tweet. Vandervest and other passengers were taken by bus to a nearby senior center. She shared on Instagram that a relative from Kalispell, Mt., was picking her up. Dozens of other passengers were taken to nearby hospitals. From 30 to 50 people were injured in the derailment.
Amtrak said that "no substitute transportation is currently available" for any passengers with cancellations caused by the derailment.
They were provided a phone number to a hotline, but some passengers in St. Paul said they were on hold for up to three hours. Amtrak agents didn't help make lodging arrangements but some passengers were told they potentially could be reimbursed. Passengers also said that they weren't refunded for the canceled train.
Between 15 and 20 people still were stranded in the Union Depot lobby Sunday at 5:30 a.m. when Kyle Riojas arrived for his shift as a ticket agent for Jefferson Lines bus company.
"There was a big group trying to figure out how to get back and forth," he said. "People were pretty livid when they found out they couldn't take the train."
He learned of the derailment from the passengers. Sunday mornings typically are quiet at the station, he said, but it was eventful this Sunday. He was busy helping connect people with buses heading west. Riojas said he heard from people who had to try to sleep at the station overnight, like Gubina.
By Sunday afternoon, she was trying to retrieve her luggage and fly to Seattle to carry on with her trip. But agents didn't arrive to the Amtrak front desk in St. Paul until 3 p.m. She said she couldn't think straight and no one on the Amtrak hotline was helping her make other arrangements. Thankfully, her daughter was helping her book a flight and hotel room.
Amtrak CEO Bill Flynn said in a statement the "immediate and sustained focus is on doing everything we can to help our passengers and crew, especially the families of those who were injured or died, at this painful and difficult time."
Kim Hyatt • 612-673-4751