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June 9, 2009

MTA apologizes for MARC debacle

             The Maryland Transit Administration issued a remarkable and unusually detailed apology Tuesday to passengers on Monday's Penn Line Train 530 -- along with a plea not to take actions that could make matters worse.

             The emailed apology, brought to you courtesy of passenger Jeff Quinton, is noteworthy for the detail of the explanation. It is especially interesting that the MTA made no effort to conceal its own frustration with the performance of Amtrak in keeping passengers informed while they sweltered in cars with no air conditioning.

While chastising Amtrak, the MTA also issued pleas to passengers not to respond to such conditions by removing windows or trying to leave the train. It said window removal can keep the train from getting under way once repairs are completed, while trying to leave the train between stations is just plain dangerous.

           The full text is well worth reading. It also indicates the MTA can't get its new locomotives on the tracks soon enough.



To Our Penn Line Passengers:

We sincerely apologize for yesterday’s mechanical breakdown on train 530 near the Seabrook station. As those of you on the train know all too well, train 530 became disabled shortly after departing New Carrollton. Not only was the train unable to move, but the train lost all lighting and air conditioning. As soon as the problem with Train 530 was reported, Amtrak sent a mechanical technician out on the next train to attempt to repair the train. The locomotive involved has been removed from service pending a thorough investigation and repairs.

The MTA contracts with Amtrak to operate the Penn Line MARC trains.

The MARC operations center was notified of Train 530’s problems by Amtrak just before 5:00pm. We sent a text and email message out to all Penn Line riders at 5:01pm, with updates following.

We understand that the temperature and conditions on board train 530 quickly became unbearable. Many of you expressed frustration that several MARC trains passed train 530 without stopping. The challenge of rush hour operations is that these trains themselves are already filled to capacity themselves and cannot take on additional passengers. While the train stopped agonizingly short of the platform at Seabrook, it is not possible to unload passengers at a location that is not a station stop.

When it became clear that train 530 was not going to be able to move for a significant period of time, trains 439 and 440 were cancelled and its equipment sent non-stop from Baltimore to Seabrook to transfer passengers. While 439 was en route, the technician was able to get 530’s locomotive working, lights and air conditioning restored, and the train departed Seabrook. MARC then “uncancelled” train 440, the 6:40pm departure from Washington.

Today, MARC management has been reviewing this incident with Amtrak.

One of our primary concerns is, based upon on your e-mails to us, that the train crew did not provide updates to passengers. This is unacceptable and we have told Amtrak that we expect their employees to provide regular updates to our passengers, even when there is no new information to report. MARC’s mechanical department will also be meeting with Amtrak mechanical personnel to determine what went wrong with the locomotive.

While yesterday’s incident was, to say the least, frustrating and the temperature uncomfortable, we do need to ask one thing of our passengers. Please do not ever remove windows from a train, unless directed by a member of the train crew. Doing this makes an already difficult situation worse—once windows are removed, a train cannot proceed until the car(s) in which the windows have been removed are unoccupied and even then the train can only proceed at a significantly reduced speed. It is also extremely dangerous to exit a train through the emergency windows. In addition to the potential injury you may incur falling from the train, trains pass on parallel tracks at speeds of up to 135 miles per hour. These trains approach very quickly and quietly. Again, while we understand the conditions on board train 530, removal of windows and exiting the train is extremely dangerous and should never be done unless directed by a uniformed Amtrak/MARC employee.

We appreciate your understanding of this matter.

Posted by Michael Dresser at 2:23 PM | | Comments (5)
Categories: MARC train


Ugh, you know, as someone who sat on this very train, my experience was somewhat different from that pieced together by the MTA officials who authorized the e-mail.

This train was having problems with on-board power - lighting and AC - even ***before*** the train left Washington. That is, the circuits kept tripping while this trains was still at the platform and passengers were boarding at Union Station. Some could argue that the train should have been held. And these circuits kept tripping between Union Station and New Carrolton, with the final failure just yards from the Seabrook station platform (as noted in the e-mail).

The train crew only passed along information that was already painfully obvious to everyone on board - that there was a problem with the engine, that they were working to fix it, that a technician was being dispatched, that the technician arrived, that he was unable to fix the engine, and that a rescue train was being sent. After that point, though, it was only when the train ultimately was able to start moving again that they announced that Train 530 would be terminating at Baltimore and passengers would be offloaded and boarded onto an awaiting train to stations north on up to Perryville.

Conditions weren't just unbearable, there were some people in real distress. People climbed out of the train on their own through the vestibules, and the train crew tried to keep folks on but also could be heard pleading for something to be done because of the very fact that people were taking matters into their own hands and fleeing the train (and oddly enough, they re-boarded the train at the Seabrook station platform.

I don't know what the right response would have been, but it was clear that the decision-making, whether MARCs, Amtrak's or both, ***contributed*** to the problems instead of ameliorating them.

"While the train stopped agonizingly short of the platform at Seabrook, it is not possible to unload passengers at a location that is not a station stop." is a lie. What they actually mean is it is against policy. If the train was on fire it would be possible for the passengers to exit short of a station.

MARC didn't address the issue of what can be done if a train breaks down in swealtering heat. The reality is that trains break down more often in the summer, and yesterday was only 83 degrees. In July and August or even later this month it might be 90 or 100+. Especially if global warming happens. MARC needs a policy for when a train breaks down and passengers are stuck in a tin can that is increasingly getting hotter and hotter with no air conditioning. I agree that passengers shouldn't take out windows, but there should be a policy in place for when the tempature inside the train reaches 100 degrees because it can be very dangerous.

Here we see the problem with this blog, Mike Dresser comments on MARC trains and other forms of public transit when he is not a regular rider. And the above post confirms that he doesn't even subscribe to the email alerts!

What Dresser or another reporter should do is contact MTA and ask what passengers should do when stuck on a broken down train with no AC in sweltering heat, especially when passengers start feeling sick. And, ask MTA why passengers can't get off the train and walk a few feet to the platform if they are on the far track and very close to the station?

This blog needs to get serious with its reporting and not just be a cheerleader for the MTA.

They have let people out of the train when not at a station. I was trapped on a disabled train during 100+ degree weather a few summers ago. The train died after leaving Union Station, maybe 1.5 north. While we had to wait an inordinately long time, we were eventually able to exit the train and stand in the shade. Once we were pushed back to the station they (I don't if it was MARC or Amtrak) had ice and bottled water waiting for us. Unfortunately nobody received correct information at that point about which trains to board (I told to board an Amtrak and then was told by the conductor to leave the train).

They need to have consistent plans, they need to have contingencies, they need to communicate.

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About Michael Dresser
Michael Dresser has been an editor, reporter and columnist with The Sun longer than Baltimore's had a subway. He's covered retailing, telecommunications, state politics and wine. Since 2004, he's been The Sun's transportation writer. He lives in Ellicott City with his wife and travel companion, Cindy.

His Getting There column appears on Mondays. Mike's blog will be a forum for all who are interested in highways, transit and other transportation issues affecting Baltimore, Maryland and the region.

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