U.S. senators press Amtrak CEO on 'train ride from hell'

Amtrak's Gardner speaks to New Jersey Governor Murphy and members of a state Congressional delegation, during a tour of the Gateway Project through the North River Tunnel beneath the Hudson River, in Weehawken, New Jersey

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -A group of four U.S. senators on Wednesday asked passenger railroad Amtrak Chief Executive Stephen Gardner to answer questions about a Virginia to Florida train last week that faced extreme delays.

The senators noted one passenger dubbed it the "train ride from hell." During the 20-hour scheduled trip with 563 passengers that turned into a 37-hour-long ordeal "passengers reported limited access to food, bathrooms, and medical care, as well as limited ability for pet owners to disembark, resulting in feces on train floors," the senators wrote.

The Democratic senators - Commerce Committee Chair Maria Cantwell, Richard Blumenthal, Ed Markey and Ben Cardin - asked Amtrak to detail its policies and procedures for passenger care and compensation in the event of similar delayed incidents.

"While we understand the train was rerouted to avoid an incident on the track and that Amtrak must abide by hours of service laws, it is difficult to imagine a sufficient justification for the distressing conditions passengers described experiencing," the senators wrote.

Amtrak said in a statement the delay for Amtrak Auto Train 53 stemmed from a CSX derailment, which required the passenger train to detour from its regular route, adding additional travel time.

Amtrak said passengers were provided regular updates, along with meals, snacks, and beverages.

"Onboard staff worked with pet owners to provide bathroom breaks. Passengers remained onboard for their safety and continued to have access to services and accommodations. We have offered refunds to all customers," Amtrak said. "We are reviewing our actions to ensure we can provide the service and communication our customers deserve and expect when we encounter significant disruptions."

Amtrak has seen ridership return over the last year. In November, Amtrak said ridership jumped by more than 10 million riders in the year ending Sept. 30 and had nearly returned to pre-COVID-19 levels.

Amtrak said ridership rose 89% over 2021 levels to 22.9 million riders, up 10.8 million passengers over the prior year. Overall ridership hit about 85% of pre-COVID levels in the last six months of the 2022 budget year.

(Reporting by David ShepardsonEditing by Chris Reese)