Extra innings lead to extra wait Train crew change strands Oriole fans on D.C. siding

July 08, 1992|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Staff Writer

Call it the little commuter train that couldn't.

After watching the Orioles win an extra-inning game at Camden Yards, 85 fans sat and waited -- and waited and waited and waited -- on a train that was delayed more than three hours early yesterday morning, nearly two of them sitting idle in a remote railroad siding in the middle of Washington, officials said.

Adding to the frustration for the stranded passengers, some of whom didn't get home until after 5 a.m., was the primary reason for the holdup: The engineer running the Maryland Rail Commuter (MARC) train was ordered to stop by his dispatcher because he had come to the end of his 12-hour work shift.

"The engineer, an employee of CSX Transportation Inc., made an error," said Jay Westbrook, a spokesman for the Jacksonville, Fla.-based corporation that was responsible for operating the train. "It was an unfortunate mistake."

The MARC train involved in the incident was bound for the Brunswick line with stops in Montgomery and Frederick counties.

The Orioles game against the Chicago White Sox went 14 innings, instead of nine, ending at 12:16 a.m. The train departed Camden Station at 12:41 a.m. with 238 passengers, according to state officials.

It discharged 153 passengers on Camden Line stops before encountering signal and switch problems that delayed it 20 minutes near the Maryland-District border.

At 2:25 a.m., the train stopped less than one mile north of Union Station -- near where the train switches from the Camden line to the Brunswick line. There it sat for one hour and 42 minutes, waiting for a new engineer to take over.

"This is absolutely inexcusable. If they had been Maryland Department of Transportation employees, they'd have been terminated -- I guarantee you," said state Transportation Secretary O. James Lighthizer. "What if someone had had a heart attack or a crime had been committed? We've never had a stunt pulled like this before."

Federal law prohibits rail crews from working more than 12 hours straight.

The problem with the Brunswick train began not with the late game but with the fact that the 12-hour clock started early for one employee. The train's engineer was a replacement brought in from Baltimore.

That meant that he had already spent the first two hours of his shift in a taxi, riding from Baltimore to the western terminus in Brunswick before the train picked up its first passengers at 5:05 p.m.

The rest of the crew was from Brunswick and was not affected by the 12-hour rule.

Mr. Westbrook said CSX could not fault the engineer for stopping the train, but officials were upset because he failed to make provisions for that eventuality. The engineer was alerted that his 12 hours were up by the dispatcher who found out only by checking a computer that monitors the length of time crews are working.

The dispatcher tracked down a replacement engineer, woke him up at home, and got him and a freight locomotive to the train. The freight locomotive was necessary because officials were only able to obtain a freight engineer. The slower-running freight engine further delayed the train.

Meanwhile, passengers said they were never officially told the reason for the delay. Several said they found out only after an enterprising passenger walked off the train and asked the engineer whom he had seen enter a shack along the tracks.

"People on board were saying they should have known this in Baltimore," said Larry Keller, 18, of Garrett Park in Montgomery County. "Why wasn't someone brought in? Why wasn't someone waiting?"

Mr. Keller and his 14-year-old brother, Robert, were accompanied on the train by neighbors Andrew and Alex Dickson, the teen-age sons of baseball writer Paul Dickson, also of Garrett Park.

Mr. Dickson, who was waiting up for his children at home, said he was upset by the delay, but mostly he was angry that no one at MARC could explain what happened. Parents who called police during the morning vigil also could get no answers, he said, and were later shocked to find out their children were stranded in a high-crime area.

"The kids were really upset," said Mr. Dickson. "They had no way to get in touch with their parents. Nobody explained what was going on to anybody on the train. It's unthinkable."

The MARC system is the responsibility of the state Mass Transit Administration, an agency of the state transportation department, but all three MARC lines are operated by contractors. Amtrak is responsible for the Penn line that runs south from Perryville to Pennsylvania Station in Baltimore and to Washington's Union Station.

CSX owns and operates the Camden line between Camden Station and Union Station and the Brunswick line.

Mr. Westbrook of CSX said the company is continuing to investigate the incident. He declined to identify the engineer or discuss whether any disciplinary actions are being taken against him.

The MTA plans to offer refunds to any of the Brunswick line passengers on the delayed MARC to the Park train. Customers will also receive a free family-fare ticket good for a future MARC ride for a group of four and a letter of apology from CSX and MTA.

Still, MTA officials said they are frustrated by their inability to improve MARC reliability and customer service.

The commuter train system has been the state's fastest growing form of public transit, but the three-hour-and five-minute delay was the worst ever, said MTA Administrator Ronald J. Hartman.

The MTA's contract offers the agency few opportunities to penalize CSX when it performs poorly or to reward it for improvements. CSX has a lock on ballpark service since it owns the Brunswick and Camden lines.

"Short of an accident or injury, this is the worst thing imagineable," Mr. Hartman said. "We were never informed about what was going on. Something's got to change."

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