A deadly Amtrak derailment in Montana over the weekend left passengers stranded at St. Paul 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, Maryland, purchased a vacation package through Amtrak taking her from Chicago to Seattle, Los Angeles and New Orleans. Instead, she was sitting in St. Paul on Sunday, without sleep for over 24 hours.
"They told me the train would go today," said Gubina. "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 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, she was given two options: stay here or go to Minot, North Dakota. She stayed, per the recommendation of an Amtrak employee, and her train was rebooked for Sunday evening. But she wasn't told that she wouldn't be able to go further 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, Montana will be cleared for trains to travel west beyond that point.
But 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, the westbound Empire Builder train that departed Chicago on Saturday was canceled between During that same time frame, eastbound Empire Builder trains will not operate between Seattle/Portland and St. Paul. Meanwhile the eastbound Empire Builder train that departed Seattle on Saturday and the Empire Builder train that departed Portland (PDX) on Saturday were also canceled between Shelby and Minot.
The derailed train had onboard 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 declined to comment for this story, shared on social media that passengers "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 bussed to a nearby senior center while dozens were taken to nearby hospitals. At least 50 passengers were injured in the derailment. She shared on Instagram that a relative from Kalispell was picking them up.
Amtrak said that "no substitute transportation is currently available" for any passengers with canceled trains resulting from the derailment. Between 15 and 20 people were stranded in the St. Paul depot lobby Sunday at 5:30 a.m. when Kyle Riojas arrived for his shift as a ticket agent for Jefferson Line 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 first learned of the derailment from the passengers. Sunday mornings are typically quiet at the station, he said, but it was eventful this Sunday. He was busy helping connect people with buses heading west, like one couple going to Spokane. Riojas said he heard from people who had to sleep here overnight, like Gubina. But she never slept.
By Sunday afternoon, she was trying to retrieve her luggage and fly to Seattle to carry on with her trip. But the Amtrak front desk in St. Paul was unattended all day. So she sat waiting in the lobby for an agent to arrive. 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 to hopefully get some rest.
Kim Hyatt • 612-673-4751