Scripps News LifeTravel

Actions

The fear of a woman traveling by train solo amid air traffic nightmare

Scripps News' Mary Chao booked a 21-hour train from Orlando to New York after dealing with days of flight cancellations.
Scripps News' Mary Chao
Posted at 2:29 PM, Jun 30, 2023

It's day four of my trip to get home to New Jersey from Florida. I decided to take a train from Orlando to New York City after days of flight cancellations. 

I'm in the dining car of Amtrak Silver Meteor's 21-hour ride, sipping coffee and reading my phone as I try to ignore the medium-framed middle-aged man with reddish brown hair. He decided to just walk over and sit at my table uninvited, and now he hands me his phone, forcing me to read it. 

"I think you're really pretty," the note reads. "I don't want you to think I'm a creeper."

Terrified, I don't know how to react. I'm trapped in this moving machine with nowhere to run. 

"Did you read it?" he asks. 

I tell him I'm married. He returns to his table, still staring at me. I know I have to be careful to not upset him. I continue to sit by myself quietly reading my phone before trying to inconspicuously return to my seat, six cars down, hoping he doesn't follow. 

Travelers stranded at Orlando International Airport Monday afternoon

Airport nightmare: Reporter faces 3 days of canceled flights home

What is it like to try to get a flight to the NYC area amid three days of delays and cancellations?

LEARN MORE

It wasn't supposed to be this way. Just 16 hours earlier on a bright, sunny afternoon in Orlando, I boarded the Amtrak train full of hope. Two days of long lines after severe weather canceling flights to Newark, LaGuardia and JFK airports tested my patience. I decided to hop on the train, seeing the long ride as an adventure and a way home as a first-timer. 

What I didn't factor in are the vulnerabilities as a solo woman traveler. Unlike a plane ride that's two hours, you are trapped on a train for 21 hours. And unlike airports with deep security checks for weapons and other dangerous items, there are no security checks on these long distance train rides, which is why I knew to be extra cautious to not upset the man eyeing me. 

Rattled, I was relieved that I wasn't followed back to my seat. But that was short-lived as just after the Washington, D.C. stop, another man decided he had to sit next to me. There were empty seats in the car. But he asked me to move my bag next to me so he could sit there. 

Intuitively, it didn't seem right. If there are empty seats, why specifically target the solo woman to sit next to?

I felt cornered against the window. The thrill I had in seeing the country from that window dissipated. I wanted out, but knew not to upset the man. He may not have had ill intentions, but the dining car incident had me on edge. 

I excused myself to get up from my seat. For the next two hours, I would stand in the back of the car by the two restrooms, fearing going back to be cornered. 

Where are the crew members, you may ask? Nowhere to be found. They did not do any check of the car after check-in, and certainly not overnight. That is something I didn't expect, thinking that crew members would do walk-throughs as they do on my hour train rides on New Jersey Transit. I stayed awake the entire night, not feeling comfortable falling asleep. 

Scripps News reporter Mary Chao boards a train.

Scripps News reporter books train after days of flight cancellations

Mary Chao decided to book a 21-hour train ride from Orlando to New York after several days of flight cancellations.

LEARN MORE

"They just don't care," the elderly disabled woman in the back area where I stood said. She told me that the bathroom to the left had been locked all night. People had knocked on the door fearing that something happened to the person inside, with no response. 

Meanwhile, the only other bathroom was overflowing with garbage. There was liquid all over the floor. It could have been water, or it could have been urine. 

Next to my standing area was an overflowing garbage bin stinking of food. But standing there was preferable to being trapped in my seat. 

Women have unique vulnerabilities when traveling alone. A 2021 survey showed that 73% of women were concerned about personal safety during solo travel. 

My travel to Orlando was for professional development at the Investigative Reporters and Editors conference. I felt safe going from the airport to a convention hotel full of people. What I didn't expect was being left alone for days to navigate a plan home. 

Beyond transportation, lodging is also a safety concern. The first night I was bumped from my flight after 14 hours at the airport, I stayed at a business hotel near the airport and felt safe with a valet, plenty of staffing and a hotel full of business travelers. 

The following night on Tuesday after being bumped off yet another flight, I stayed at a lower-priced option. Not a good idea. Anyone could access the elevator without a key card and the side door to the hotel was unlocked. 

Lesson learned: Do not attempt to save money in emergency travel situations. 

Families board train.

Family takes 21-hour train trip home after canceled flight to NYC

The Patrick family is among the stranded air travelers who could not find flights back to the New York City area and resorted to taking the train.

LEARN MORE

As the train was pulling up to New York's Penn Station after more than 20 hours, the passengers lined up to exit. A crew member finally appeared, and an elderly woman told him of the deplorable sanitary conditions. He told her to call an 800 number. He said he was the conductor and doesn't deal with cleaning. 

As I exited the train and bid farewell to fellow passenger Ashley Patrick and her family — they also took the train after being bumped off flights in Orlando — we agreed that the initial hope of a pleasant train experience had indeed faded. 

“I don’t think I'd do this again,” she said.