CHICAGO — On one of the busiest travel days of the year, hundreds of Amtrak passengers bound for holiday celebrations hunkered down in waiting rooms -- some for nearly 24 hours -- as snowstorms and Arctic cold delayed their trains and disrupted other Christmas traffic.
Leroy Keeling, 63, and his wife, Roberta, were headed home by train to Minnesota for his cancer treatment. They waited almost 24 hours at Chicago's Union Station, forcing Keeling to miss a Tuesday appointment and face the possibility of going without his medicine during the holidays.
His doctors "wanted to make sure that I had medicine for the weekend because I could get sick," said Keeling, whose wife travels with an oxygen tank.
They were among almost 800 Amtrak passengers stranded in Chicago as a result of storms. Travelers from two trains spent Monday night packed into cold waiting areas, wearing hats and gloves to keep warm.
When the ordeal finally ended, the Keelings' train, scheduled to leave at 2:15 p.m. Monday carrying 392 passengers, left at 1:22 p.m. Tuesday. An East Coast-bound train with 403 passengers was delayed nearly 16 hours.
Amtrak blamed the situation on severe weather that affected its ability to service equipment and to deploy train crews.
"This confluence of events has played havoc with our train equipment, including frozen water systems and snow-packed locomotives, and it has caused problems on the rail lines themselves," Amtrak Chief Executive Joseph Boardman said.
Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said crews in some cities headed out with picks and shovels to clear snow-packed track switches. Elsewhere, trains were held back to give lavatory pipes time to thaw.
Each delay caused a ripple effect, with other trains and crews having to wait or readjust, he added.
Fliers fared little better. The Chicago Department of Aviation said more than 500 flights were canceled at O'Hare International Airport on Tuesday because of the weather, and many others were delayed up to two hours.
The Chicago Tribune and the Associated Press contributed to this report.