Going somewhere, getting nowhere

Rail service delays turn into debacle for stranded passengers

September 17, 1999|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

They waited. Then steamed. Then revolted.

Hundreds of Amtrak passengers were held hostage for hours yesterday by Hurricane Floyd after downed trees and standing water stalled at least a half-dozen trains on Maryland tracks.

"They won't let us off, they won't open the doors," passenger Meghan Troy said in a call from her cell phone about 5: 30 p.m. on a train south of Baltimore. "There's no food, no water, the bathrooms don't work.

"It's unbelievable."

Faced with little information and few options, some passengers began breaking out of trains onto the tracks, fighting over food and frantically using mobile phones to call for help -- including pleas to the White House.

Late in the day, passengers stranded on a train near West Franklin Street at North Warwick Avenue forced the car doors open and wandered down the tracks. About 100 trudged with suitcases and children through tough West Baltimore neighborhoods until they were found by police officers who helped them get cabs.

"It was like they were picking up boat people from Vietnam," said Judith Wineman, who was traveling from Washington to her home in New York.

Amtrak officials did not return repeated calls late yesterday.

The Amtrak delays were not the only travel troubles caused by the storm, which closed hundreds of roads across Maryland, knocked out scores of traffic signals and flipped a truck on the Bay Bridge.

Getting around seemed deceptively easy in the morning despite heavy rains. Many people appeared to heed the weather warnings and stayed home, eliminating any resemblance of morning rush hour across the region.

By late morning, only 30 roads had been closed because of flooding and a few downed trees, and the weather created only minor train delays.

But circumstances changed near noon -- about the time 81-mph wind gusts were recorded at the Bay Bridge. By then, travelers who braved the highways and rails probably wished they hadn't.

Passengers who had boarded an Amtrak Metroliner in Washington, expecting to be in New York by mid-afternoon, were still stuck on the train south of Baltimore six hours later.

For much of the afternoon, at least five trains -- four Amtrak and one MARC -- with a combined passenger load of about 1,000 -- were stranded in West Baltimore for several hours with limited food, water and bathroom facilities.

Passenger Henry L. Fernandez, manager of the Youth Smoking Prevention Program with Philip Morris U.S.A. in New York, said he broke out of his train about 6 p.m. after the cafe car clerk said there was no more food.

Fernandez said he climbed a 12-foot fence topped by barbed wire, walked to a CVS store on Franklin Street and bought $29 worth of juice, pretzels and cookies to share with fellow stranded passengers.

Many passengers said Amtrak employees appeared to be just as upset as they were, with some borrowing cell phones to try to call their supervisors.

Late last night, Mass Transit Administration officials were shuttling passengers from their stranded trains to Penn Station. There they were being offered hotel rooms or bus trips to Philadelphia, Washington or Wilmington, Del.

Earlier, Amtrak had returned some trains to the Baltimore-Washington International Airport station and bused those passengers to Washington.

"I met and talked to everyone on my car, and I learned things about people that I probably shouldn't know," said Allen Sohen, a New Jersey businessman, as he left in search of a hotel room.

Five women at Penn Station who were trying to get to New York said they had serious doubts that they would make their 7: 30 p.m. flight to Spain. "We planned this trip a year ago," said Elaine Burns of Timonium. "We can't understand why Floyd had to do this on this particular day."

Downed trees also disrupted light rail service north of the city. As many as five trees fell on tracks between North Avenue and Lutherville. Shuttle buses helped transport passengers around the break in the line, but 20 passengers were stranded in light rail cars for more than two hours.

The shuttles will continue today as transit officials work to clear the trees.

MARC trains will follow a holiday schedule today.

The storm forced major thoroughfares, including U.S. 29 in Howard County and U.S. 50 at 301 in Anne Arundel County, to close.

High winds earlier in the morning flipped a near-empty tractor-trailer on the Bay Bridge. The truck had violated restrictions against crossing without a load.

The accident shut down the westbound span for nearly three hours and created a two-mile backup. A tow truck had to drag the truck from the bridge.

Most airlines canceled flights at BWI about midday as winds crept toward dangerous levels. Some carriers -- including US Airways, one of the airport's largest -- continued to land and take off until about 3 p.m., but most planes were grounded by late afternoon.

Dozens of Bird River Beach Road residents in Baltimore County discovered that they couldn't get to their homes last night -- a large tree had fallen across the road, blocking access. Steve Schmelz, 18, and Bobby Carter, 16, had the residents park at a nearby church and then guided them to a truck parked on the other side of the tree, which was resting on power lines.

"We're shuttling everyone through the neighborhood if they have to get through," Schmelz said.

Sun staff writers Joe Mathews, Tim Craig, John Rivera, Eric Siegel and Robert Little contributed to this article.

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