Sunday, February 3, 10:39 a.m.
I am sitting on the 10:40 Metra Union Pacific westbound train at Ogilvie Station, headed to my parents’ house in Winfield, a far western suburb of Chicago, for my sister’s and aunt’s birthday brunch. The conductor comes over the loudspeaker to announce that there are track problems at Elmhurst, about halfway between where I am and where I want to be. Someone is checking on the track, and they’ll let us know the situation as soon as possible, but in the meantime, we’re not going to depart.
About fifteen minutes later, we get the all-clear from down the line. The track is fine. We can leave. Just a minor delay. Not such a big deal.
However, as we roll into Oak Park, the first station, a prerecorded message says, “Based on information we have received, a freight derailment may delay our train en route.” We get no further clarification from the conductors, but the robot lady promises to keep us updated.
At River Forest, the very next station, the train stops moving and doesn’t start again. Now we’re told there are engine problems. At this point, people are pretty exasperated. We don’t know which of these issues, or all of them, are the real cause of our delays. All we know is that we’re more than twenty minutes late now and we’re not moving any time soon. I get out in the hopes of hopping on the next in-bound train and just going home. I don’t like going to the suburbs. I was raised out there, and there are many reasons why I’ve been a city-dweller for the past twelve-plus years. One of those many reasons is my general dislike of cars and the suburbs’ almost complete lack of useful public transit.
I walk under the tracks and get to the opposite platform just in time to hear the conductor on my original train shout, “Everybody on board! We’re headed out!” I yell to him, and he holds the train while I run back under the tracks and jump on what I believe is now a repaired train. This is a mistake.
We get going and limp through Maywood very, very slowly, stopping every few minutes and never really building up steam. We aren’t at Melrose Park yet when we stop dead. The prerecorded announcement tells us we’re operating forty minutes behind schedule. My entire trip is supposed to take fifty-five minutes.
The passengers are getting seriously restless now. A dude with a styrofoam cup of coffee and a black knit cap is pacing and pissed off. Most everyone is on their phones, trying to make new arrangements and apologizing to the people they’re supposed to be meeting now, all trying to describe the constantly evolving situation. Is it track problems, derailment, engine trouble, or what?
The in-bound train roars past us. On Sundays, they only run once every few hours. This means I am completely stranded.
We finally arrive at Melrose Park, now fifty minutes late according to the robot. The girl across from me opens a granola bar, and I realize to my horror that I am snackless. What have I told you guys about snacks? Always. Always! I am fortune’s fool.
Upon departing Melrose Park, they switch the officially recorded blame from “freight derailment” to “mechanical failure.” The word failure does not inspire hope in any of us. The voice apologizes for any inconvenience, just in case sitting on a train barely moving for an hour might have possibly caused any.
Before we hit Bellwood, we pass the derailed freight train. Several train cars are lying on their left sides like horses that have been put down.
Just past Bellwood we’re a full hour behind schedule. We haven’t even left Cook County yet. Most disconcertingly, each time we start moving again, we creep slightly backward first. No one likes this. We’ve all gone silent, conserving our dwindling cell phone batteries.
The conductor walks through the car, telling us the train won’t go faster than eight miles an hour. Eight.
As we leave Berkeley, we’re now eighty minutes behind schedule. The conductor now tells us that at Villa Park, two stops on, we’re going to sit and wait for the train behind us coming from Chicago–which left two hours after we did–to catch up to us, and then we’ll all be loaded onto that train. That sounds terrible to me, so I call my parents’ house and my dad offers to drive over to pick me up at Elmhurst, the station we’re approaching. That sounds slightly less terrible, so that’s what we do.
I alight at Elmhurst, just glad to be off that stupid train. I wait in a little vestibule out of the biting wind with a couple of other discontented passengers waiting for rides. By the time my dad is able to make the drive out, the next train from Chicago is pulling into the station. It’s 1:12 p.m. This is what I get for leaving the safety of the city.