When traveling on Amtrak, pack well, warns Wyatt Johnston of Rochester, Minn. “Bring snacks, bring extra batteries, bring one of those portable Wi-Fi hotspot devices you can buy at Walmart. Just be an adult: Be prepared.”

That is wisdom born of experience — a very bad experience. Johnston was among 267 Amtrak passengers stuck on the westbound Empire Builder when heavy rains hit Wisconsin last week. The train made an unscheduled stop in Portage, Wis., due to the deluge and wound up staying there overnight. When it finally moved again, it was 22 hours behind schedule. An eastbound Empire Builder, stalled outside of Tomah, Wis., was more than 18 hours behind schedule.

On board Johnston’s train, there was no Wi-Fi connection, the train’s power shut off for brief stretches and one toddler cried unconsolably as her parents walked her up and down the aisle. A group gathered in the observation car to drink into the wee hours. By 4 a.m., with the train still stationary, most drifted off to sleep.

For Johnston, who had been visiting family in the Chicago area, the delay made his return home, including a drive from La Crosse, Wis., to Rochester, a 30-hour ordeal.

Johnston has been making this train trip since he was 13 years old. While he’s experienced delays, he’s never seen anything this dramatic.

In the morning, the crew passed around “stale cookies and coffee,” as Johnston describes it. They also fed passengers a lunch of beef stew.

Communication, though, is what Johnston would have appreciated even more than food. “They told us nothing. A lot of us would have made other arrangements when we were in Portage if we’d have known what was going on.”

The frequent traveler has already booked his next trip to Chicago.

He’s taking a plane.

Amtrak trains run on what the company calls “host railroads.” This can require its trains to pull aside for freight trains, messing up schedules.

Passengers can track a train’s status at Amtrak.com (click “Train Status”). But that information provides no meaningful help once a person is on the train and storms hit, surprising passengers and crew alike.


Send your questions or tips to Travel Editor Kerri Westenberg at travel@startribune.com, and follow her on Twitter: @kerriwestenberg.