Amtrak passengers stranded in St. Paul after fatal derailment

A fatal 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, Md., Purchased a vacation package through Amtrak taking her from Chicago to Seattle, Los Angeles and New Orleans. Instead, she sat in St. Paul on Sunday, sleepless for over 24 hours.

“They told me the train would be leaving today,” Gubina said. “I asked the ticket agent if it would be safe. He told me that the [Depot] is very safe… I told him I was talking about the rails. I doubted they would be able to fix the rails so quickly after such a major derailment.

“But I believed them and instead of just getting on a plane and going on, I’m stuck here.”

Gubina, who is Russian, discovered the derailment that killed at least three passengers and injured dozens over dinner on her way to Saint-Paul. Once at the depot, she had two options: stay here or go to Minot, North Dakota. She stayed, as recommended by an Amtrak employee, and her train was booked for Sunday evening. But she was not told that she could not go further than Minot.

The last westbound train from Saint-Paul left on time for Minot on Saturday at 10:20 p.m., but it was as far west as the train went. It is not known when the derailment site near Joplin, MT will be cleared for trains to travel west past this point.

But in a statement on Sunday, Amtrak said that starting Sunday and through Tuesday, all scheduled westbound Empire Builder trains from Chicago will terminate at 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. on Saturday, the Westbound Empire Builder train that left Chicago on Saturday was canceled between Empire Builder eastbound trains will not operate between Seattle / Portland and St. Paul. Meanwhile, the Empire Builder eastbound train that left Seattle on Saturday and the Empire Builder train that left Portland (PDX) on Saturday were also canceled between Shelby and Minot.

The derailed train had 17 crew members and 141 passengers on board, including Megan Vandervest of Minneapolis, who boarded the Empire Builder on Friday in St. Paul with a friend. Vandervest, who declined to comment for the story, said on social media that passengers “feel lucky to be alive.”

“I have done all the chatting that I feel comfortable with and am ready to take a break to relive the experience to spend time with my friends,” she wrote in a tweet. Vandervest and other passengers were transported by bus to a nearby elderly center while dozens were taken to nearby hospitals. At least 50 passengers were injured in the derailment. She shared on Instagram that a relative of Kalispell was picking them up.

Amtrak said “no alternative transportation is currently available” for passengers whose trains were canceled as a result of the derailment. Between 15 and 20 people were stranded in the lobby of the St. Paul depot on Sunday at 5:30 a.m. when Kyle Riojas arrived for his shift as a ticket agent for the Jefferson Line bus company.

“There was a great group trying to figure out how to come and go,” he said. “People were quite pissed off when they found out they couldn’t take the train.”

He first learned of the derailment from the passengers. Sunday mornings are generally quiet at the station, he said, but this Sunday has been eventful. He was busy helping people join westbound buses, like a couple heading to Spokane. Riojas said he heard from people who had to sleep here at night, like Gubina. But she never slept.

On Sunday afternoon, she was trying to collect her luggage and fly to Seattle to continue her trip. But the Amtrak reception in St. Paul was unattended all day. So she sat down while waiting in the lobby for an agent to arrive. She said she couldn’t think properly and that no one on the Amtrak hotline was helping her make other arrangements. Luckily, her daughter was helping her book a flight and a hotel room to hopefully rest.

Kim Hyatt • 612-673-4751

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