‘People are starting to panic’: Metro Detroiters detail nightmare train experience

‘Then all of the sudden, people started escaping’

Passengers on an Amtrak train departing Metro Detroit were left in the dark, with no running water or heat for hours on end as the train experienced a series of mechanical issues.

Passengers on an Amtrak train departing Metro Detroit were left in the dark, with no running water or heat for hours on end as the train experienced a series of mechanical issues.

Dana Thomas and her family from Ypsilanti boarded train 351 in Dearborn just before 7:00 a.m. Friday. They were scheduled to arrive in Chicago at 10:32 a.m. CST.

Around 9:00 a.m., the problems began. “The train went completely quiet,” Thomas said. “We lost all power, all electricity, it just glided to a stop.”

Amtrak confirmed that the train stopped due to a power issue with the engine. Another train traveling behind them stopped to help.

“Train 353 coupled to Train 351, and the train operated as a double-draft set to Chicago, IL.,” a spokesperson with Amtrak said in a statement.

By the time they arrived at the stop in Battle Creek, passengers say a foul odor had taken over. Without power, there was no way to flush the toilets.

“So by the time we pull into Battle Creek, the toilets are at the max, full capacity and the cars are starting to smell,” Thomas said. “Everybody wanted to get off, we asked, we begged.”

After they stopped to use the restroom, they reboarded the train and headed for Chicago.

Around 7:00 p.m., Thomas said the train stopped again. “The conductor says ‘Welp, my time is up.’ We said, ‘What does that mean?’ ‘A new crew has to take over because my time is up.’”

When the new crew arrived, they discovered an urgent situation with the brakes. Amtrak said once that was resolved, the train was delayed again due to a power issue with the battery.

“It’s getting dark, people are starting to panic,” Thomas said. “You start hearing screaming on the train, somebody had a full panic attack.”

Without heat or lights, it was cold and dark. A combination that only intensified the passengers’ panic.

“Then all of the sudden, people started escaping,” Thomas said. “So they warning us that there are seven live tracks one way and three the other way. And people couldn’t take it anymore, they called Ubers and people were actually stopping on the freeway picking people up. It was madness.”

Thomas and her family stuck it out. Eventually, jumping off Train 351 and walking to board Train 353, which had electricity and heat. Space became available on the connected train after passengers fled, securing alternate transportation.

The 17-hour ordeal ended around midnight in Chicago. Thomas and her family missed their connections and had to cancel their trip. She said other passengers missed weddings, funerals, and other special events.

She said the passengers on Train 351 will be forever bonded. “People collectively coming together to make sure the story of Amtrak 351 is told because Amtrak’s response has been absolutely abysmal because they were more concerned about the train than the passengers or the people within the train.”

Amtrak refunded Thomas’ train fare, offered vouchers, and sent apology emails.

About the Authors:

Jacqueline Francis is an award-winning journalist who joined the WDIV team in September 2022. Prior to Local 4, she reported for the NBC affiliate in West Michigan. When she’s not on the job, Jacqueline enjoys taking advantage of all the wonders Michigan has to offer, from ski trips up north to beach days with her dog, Ace.

Morgan is a Digital Editor and has been with WDIV since May of this year. She is also studying political science and communications at Wayne State University.