42 rescued after 6 1/2 hours in stranded light rail train

January 19, 1994|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Staff Writer

Forty-two people on board a stranded light rail train were rescued early yesterday after spending 6 1/2 hours on an elevated track near Camden Yards.

Mass Transit Administration officials said the two-car train was stuck when it lost power 50 yards north of the Middle Branch. Sleet and freezing rain had encrusted the overhead electrical lines, preventing contact with the train.

No one was injured in the incident.

The icy weather disrupted service along the 22.5-mile-long light rail system, forcing the MTA to ferry passengers by bus Monday night. Its lingering effects continued to cause delays when service was partly restored yesterday.

"This is our first ice storm, and we need a better backup system to avoid situations like this," Transportation Secretary O. James Lighthizer said. "Six and a half hours is too long for anybody to sit on a train or anywhere else for that matter."

The ordeal began at approximately 6:15 p.m. when a northbound train left the Westport Station and lost power after crossing the Middle Branch, officials said. The passenger load was light because of the weather and the federal holiday.

Other light rail trains developed similar problems at about that time. But in those cases, MTA crews were able to transfer passengers to buses.

MTA Administrator John A. Agro Jr. said passengers were victims of both the weather and the circumstances. The elevated span where the train stopped had a walkway, but it was too icy to use, he said.

"It was not appropriate to expose people to what I felt was a significant risk," Mr. Agro said. "Their safety was foremost in my mind."

Inside the train, the operator told passengers that their trip would be delayed. Initial good spirits were taxed as the rescue effort took longer and longer.

Late in the evening, one of the cars lost heat, and passengers were shepherded into a single car.

"They didn't seem to know how to get us off there," said Bill Sivels, 62, a city resident and dental technician who was returning home from work in Severna Park. "We were without food or water or a bathroom. A lot of people were angry about it."

Mr. Agro said more than 30 MTA employees responded to the incident. A diesel-powered vehicle similar to a dump truck and capable of riding the metal rails was summoned from the MTA's North Avenue facility.

The vehicle eventually pushed the cars south back across the Middle Branch.

By 12:30 a.m., the train was brought to a spot underneath Interstate 95 where passengers disembarked at ground level.

Waiting MTA employees shuttled passengers home in cars and 4-wheel-drive trucks.

Mr. Sivels said the passengers got along well the whole time they were trapped. He said people were also grateful to get a ride home.

Mr. Agro said he intends to send a letter to each passenger, explaining what happened and apologizing for the inconvenience. Mr. Lighthizer said, "It's a young system, and we're going to make mistakes. This time it was nature's fault. If it happens again, it's our fault."

The light rail system was still experiencing delays as of late yesterday, with trains running 30 minutes apart instead of the normal 15. Officials blamed the problem on the fact that some cars were still not operational. They were uncertain whether trains would be on time today.

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