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Planes, Trains, and Automobiles: How Amtrak Saved Christmas

Today’s guest post is written by Emily Richardson. Emily is a young professional and marketing expert for a major airline. She lives in Dallas, Texas. The opinions expressed below are exclusively her own. -Rob

When it comes to travel, I'm spoiled. For three years now, I've worked for the best little airline in the country and I love it! I completely take for granted that I can wake up on a Saturday morning and decide to spend the night in Vegas, New Orleans, Chicago, Los Angeles... I can have my pick of over sixty fabulous destinations on a whim. I can't wrap my mind around planning a trip in advance. I just check the schedule and go!

I've been very lucky in my travels that weather and other acts of God haven't affected my plans. It was bound to happen though, and it did on Christmas Eve. I was happily on my way to the airport on the morning of December 24th. My gifts were wrapped and my cards were signed. I was ready to celebrate with my family as we do every year. Just as my shuttle pulled up to the curbside baggage check at Love Field in Dallas, an unknown number popped up on my phone. It was an automated message from the airline. The perky voice on the other end said that my flight to Oklahoma City had been canceled due to weather. No big deal, I thought. There are two more flights; surely they're not all canceled. I can always hop in a jump seat with the flight attendants (another nice employee perk) if the plane is full.

(from flickr user artwitsyl)

Once inside the airport I checked my suitcase full of gifts and proceeded to the gate where the next flight to Oklahoma City was scheduled to depart. I stood in line behind a thick crowd of stressed-out holiday travelers, thinking that they were worried about getting re-accommodated on this flight while I would be nice and cozy in a jump seat. My worst fears were realized when I heard the gate agent announce, "All flights to Oklahoma City have been canceled." Great. I overheard another agent tell a couple, "You could try Tulsa. There's a flight leaving in one hour." Bingo! I thought. I made my way down to the next gate and signed up for the jump seat assuming there would be a lot of passengers transferring to this flight. I planned to rent an SUV at the Tulsa Airport and make the ninety-mile drive to Oklahoma City, just in time to join my family for Christmas Eve mass.

I called my dad to let him know I'd be in a little later than planned. Once I told him my agenda he said, "No way." Apparently the winter storm the weatherman warned me about the previous night had hit and it was more like a blizzard than a storm. My dad told me there was so much snow already on the ground that people were abandoning their vehicles on streets and highways. He said Tulsa would be worse than Oklahoma City and there was no way I'd make it. Reality suddenly hit me like a ton of bricks. I couldn't fly home and I couldn't drive home. I'd be spending Christmas alone. Like a child, I started bawling in the middle of the terminal and hung up the phone. How did I let this happen? Oh, I remember. The night before my dad advised me to take the 8:00 PM flight home but I decided to stay in Dallas because I had tentative plans to see a boy I like. I stress the words "tentative" and "plans" because that's all it was and nothing panned out. Lesson learned.

As I made my way to baggage claim to pick up my suitcase I started planning my first Christmas alone. Maybe this was my real rite of passage into adult life. The universe was testing me. I could stay holed up in my apartment with a bottle of Merlot and cry myself to sleep or get dressed up and hit the town for a nice seafood dinner for one. I decided on the latter and that my dad wouldn't mind me charging it to his Visa. That was the least they could do for me in my loneliness.

While waiting on the baggage handler to find my suitcase my mom called. I really wasn't in the mood to talk and I begrudgingly answered the phone. She had been on the horn with family telling them I'd be absent at our Christmas this year when my brilliant cousin suggested I look into taking the train. Amtrak runs the Heartland Flyer between Fort Worth and Oklahoma City once a day. I'd never been on a train before in my life, but if I could get to Fort Worth and make it to the station in time I just might make it home for Christmas! Luckily, the train's one and only daily departure was at 5:25 PM. I was able to arrange a ride to the station and purchase a ticket over the phone. I'll be forever grateful to my cousin for her suggestion because without it, the idea of taking a train would never have crossed my mind.

(from flickr user StevenM_61)

As a marketer in the transportation industry, we're always brainstorming for ways to "get more butts in seats." I have so many ideas for Amtrak. I would love to be hired as a marketing consultant (although that might conflict with my current employment, so never mind!). For example, when bad weather is on its way and flight cancellations are imminent, they could send nice motor coaches to Love Field and DFW airports and have representatives inside with signs advertising their service. Ground transportation to the station could be fifteen bucks a head. Because there is only one daily departure time for the train, the coach could park at the airport as representatives fill it up with customers until it's time to leave for the station. Once on board the representatives could serve weary travelers complimentary soft drinks and adult beverages and entertain them with songs and games.

The Amtrak routes serving Texas are not exactly as efficient or convenient as those running up and down the east coast, but with a little creative marketing I think they could turn things around. Plus, there is something to be said about the simplicity of train travel. (Please keep in mind I'm speaking from my single experience on the Heartland Flyer.) There's no security check, the legroom is at least three times any airline's economy class, the seats are as wide as airline's first class, and every passenger has access to a power outlet. The best part of my train experience was that it got me to my destination when a plane or automobile couldn't. There's a lot to be said for that.

I'm so grateful that Amtrak got me to Oklahoma City, but it was a long, strange trip. We left the station on-time (plus one for on-time departure) and I was very comfortable in my huge seat (plus one for comfort) with power outlet (plus one for productivity). An employee came by to tear my ticket and wished me a Merry Christmas (plus one for customer service). I watched out the window as we flew past the white countryside and felt like I was riding the Polar Express. What a fabulous Christmas Eve adventure, I thought. I'd make it home by 9:30 PM, my family would greet me at the station, and we'd still have time to sit by the fire, drink hot coco, and watch "A Christmas Story." I'm a sucker for tradition.

About half an hour into the trip, the conductor announced that a state of emergency had been declared in Oklahoma. He said they'd try their best to make it to our final destination but couldn't make any promises due to the "unusual" conditions. At that point we were still in Texas! As soon as the cafe car opened I decided I needed a drink. Or two. I found the end of the long line wound around the first floor of the car. I was very curious about the other people on the train. I had no idea who would make plans to ride the Heartland Flyer for it's estimated four hours when you could make the drive in three or fly in less than one. A lot of the train's customers live in Fort Worth and used the train as a convenient, affordable way to get to Oklahoma (the train makes several stops on the way to Oklahoma City). Another group of travelers had been on a flight from Baltimore to Oklahoma City and was diverted to Dallas where they were stuck. They shared cabs all the way to Fort Worth and barely made it in time to catch the train.

(from flickr user ahockley)

I was invited to join this nice bunch of Yanks in their car. After a couple drinks each we were fast friends. A frequent rider from Fort Worth joined us as well. She knew the route well and could tell something was up when at 8:00 PM we'd barely crossed the state line. We had a deck of cards, good conversation, and the cafe car was fully stocked so our group was determined to have a great Christmas Eve, regardless of where we spent it.

The tides turned when one of the Yanks went downstairs to the cafe car for round three. The woman who was serving, Constance (yes that is her real name), told him that "snow, trains, and alcohol don't mix" and that none of her customers would be allowed to buy any more drinks. (Minus five for customer service. That is a serious offense when you have people captive on a train on Christmas Eve. She should be fired.) Fortunately, one of the nice ladies in our group had a small bottle of Korbel that we popped at midnight and shared. (Take that Constance!) Yes, we were still on the train at midnight. The stations at the stops along the way were closed so departing passengers had to run through the snow to the platform. The switches on the tracks were frozen so we had to stop while the engineers thawed them with a blowtorch and switched them by hand. We finally arrived at the Oklahoma City station around 12:30 AM on Christmas morning.

I was home! Almost. As I came out of the train station, I saw the reality of the blizzard. I'd never seen downtown Oklahoma City in such a state before. There were snowdrifts nearly as tall as me. Cars were abandoned in the middle of the streets. Landmarks were barely recognizable. My brother and dad pulled up to the station in their four-wheel drive Jeep. I threw my bags in the back and we made our way slowly home. It was after 1:00 AM when I we got to my parents' house. I'd never been so glad to be home as I was that night (well, morning). A few hours later we were up having our traditional family Christmas. We were stuck in the house all day but we were all together. I contacted my Heartland Flyer friends on Facebook and made a group: "I Was Stuck on the Heartland Flyer for Seven Hours on 12/24/09." Oh, and the boy for whom I stuck around in Dallas and didn't hear from still hasn't called.


Rob Pitingolo said…
Great story, Emily. I've always wondered how well-designed a rail system could complement the airlines. If train stations were located right at airports, passengers could deplane and take the train to their final destinations. Airlines could have codeshares with the train lines to make for smooth transitions. An added benefit would be that passengers could more easily travel into the center of cities, rather than have to commute in from airports, which are often on the outskirts of cities.
Dave Reid said…
Rob Agreed it would be great if Amtrak had better access to airports, and you could do connections like that.

PS Great read Emily.
Anonymous said…
Again, that's competition, though, that airlines would likely not be comfortable with. Certain airports have local or quasi-regional rail connections already, however -- Chicago, St. Louis, DFW (and the TRE train that runs between Dallas and Fort Worth and includes the airport, also shares a stop in each of those cities with Amtrak), SFX, etc.
Anonymous said…
Charming post! What a fantastic read. Thanks for the adventure :)
B. P. Beckley said…
Baltimore-Washington International Airport has its own Amtrak stop which is pretty well served by Amtrak and MARC, the Maryland rail commuter authority.

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