What was supposed to have been an enjoyable ride on the rail between Oklahoma City and Fort Worth became anything but, and answers are needed.
“Heartland Flyer passengers endured nearly eight hours of delays Saturday night in a series of weather difficulties caused by heavy rain, a downed tree on the track and a lightning strike, which disabled one of the engines,” Business Writer Jennifer Palmer reported Tuesday on the front page of The Oklahoman.
The ride from Fort Worth began on time (5:25 p.m., Jennifer reported) but was 16 miles behind schedule when it reached its first stop in Gainesville, Texas. Amtrak, which operates the flyer, said that was due to heavy rain and flash flooding.
A little past Gene Autry, in southern Oklahoma, the train had to stop because there was a tree on the track. It was apparently at that stop that lightning struck the track or the locomotive, disabling it. This required freight locomotives to be summoned to remove the stricken power source.
The train was able to make its stop in Purcell nearly seven hours late. Passengers were warned at the next stop, in Norman, that there was a possibility of more delays. Several people took the opportunity to get off.
Those factors alone made this trip much less than pleasurable. But there was more. After the Flyer was able to move on, and just past Norman it shut down again.
It seems the crew had completed 12 hours, “the maximum time allowed, Amtrak said.” So “two miles from the station, crossing a live track on foot and navigating a ditch in the dark to find another way home, … ” the passengers were allowed to exit the train.
Eventually, a backup crew arrived to finish the journey. The train arrived in Oklahoma City at 5:34 a.m.
“We want people to know this wasn’t a satisfactory trip for us either,” Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari told Jennifer. “We’re looking at ways we could have handled this differently.”
Here’s a suggestion: look hard. Look very, very hard. This is where contingency plans should come into play.
Unexpected problems, such as weather or mechanical failures, can make things rough. Having an idea of how to handle them avoids an inconvenience to paying customers and an embarrassment. It can help you avoid what, in many circles, is known as a “public relations nightmare.”
How this incident affects future ridership will show how the public feels about it. Here’s hoping the Flyer can get back on track.