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 sheltered inside 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. Motorists, airline passengers and commuters were left 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.
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On the roads, powerful winds pushing the 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. A fourth train, carrying 150 people from Washington, D.C., to Chicago came to a halt in Indianapolis because of blowing snow.
Smith’s train began its journey in warm Los Angeles, passing the Grand Canyon and carving through wheat fields before rolling into trouble in the frozen Midwest.
“They started to cut through heavier and heavier drifts,” said Smith, 45, a sound designer for films who got on the train at Garden City, Kan. “The passenger on my side was joking, he said, ‘I think we ran over somebody.’ They weren’t huge bumps, but it was enough to jerk the train.”
When the train stopped altogether, around 4 p.m. Monday, a conductor came on the loudspeaker and quipped, “As you can see, there’s a little bit of snow out there.”
“At first it was kind of funny, and our conductor had a good sense of humor about it, and then it stopped being funny,” said Carley Lintz, a 21-year-old journalism student on her way back to Northwestern University from her home in Gardner, Kan.
The crew served a dinner of beef stew over rice, but the lounge car eventually ran out of everything but drinks, Smith said. Several passengers speaking to news outlets by cellphone earlier Tuesday had complained about deteriorating conditions, including flooded sinks and toilets, but Smith and others on his train said they only saw overflowing trash cans.
As night set in, some tried to sleep. Others paced the aisles. There was enough of a 3G signal for those glued to smartphones and tablets to stay connected. Lintz plowed through two books, and was thankful for the conductor’s humor.
“She made it into a story,” Lintz said. “She started, ‘Once there was a train that wanted to get to Chicago.’
“ … But it was the little train that couldn’t get through the snow,” she said with a chuckle.
Another train coming to the rescue also got stuck. Local authorities arrived. Crews shoveled and plowed, and passengers eventually were moved to a second train, taken back to Princeton, Ill., and put on buses to Chicago. The ordeal lasted some 17 hours.
Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said emergency workers were on standby, and that train crews handed out food and prepared for any medical issues, though he said there were none.