Northeast Amtrak service stalled

thousands stranded

Train power lines down near Baltimore

May 09, 2000|By David L. Greene and David Folkenflik | David L. Greene and David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

Amtrak rail service was virtually paralyzed between New York and Washington for much of yesterday afternoon after power lines tumbled across tracks just northeast of Baltimore, canceling trains and stranding several thousand passengers.

The disruption began about 11 a.m., and delays were expected to extend into last night. Amtrak hoped to have normal service restored by this morning.

In all, 14 trains scheduled to shuttle passengers along the Northeast corridor yesterday were canceled. Eight trains bound from New York to Washington were halted in Philadelphia, and five trains that would usually travel from Washington to New York originated in Philadelphia instead.

Rick Remington, an Amtrak spokesman, called the problem "a major incident," but added that a blizzard could cause worse headaches.

Amtrak ran buses all afternoon from Wilmington, Del.,Philadelphia, Washingtonand Baltimore. "We didn't strand trains in the middle of nowhere," Remington said. "And we provided free food on a number of trains. Our response to incidents like this is generally pretty good."

But some travelers didn't offer such rave reviews.

"The troops didn't handle this well," Frank Gallivan of Delaware said as he and a dozen southbound rail passengers got off a bus that carted them from Wilmington to Baltimore. "Some went ballistic."

Rail officials suspect the troubles began when a northbound Metroliner, which left Washington at 10 a.m., stopped at Penn Station in Baltimore, possibly struck rail power lines and dumped them across three of four tracks over a stretch of several miles.

The incident occurred north of MARC's Martin State Airport station in eastern Baltimore County. MARC's Penn Line, which also experienced minor disruptions, is run by Amtrak and shares tracks with the national rail service.

Investigation continues

Last night, Amtrak officials continued to investigate the cause of the accident and could not say exactly how the lines had been knocked down. The electrical lines, which run above the tracks, power most Amtrak trains, including all Metroliners and Northeast Direct trains between Washington and Baltimore.

Long-distance trains are powered by diesel engines, so yesterday afternoon a Miami-bound train was able to slip by the area on the one unblocked track and left Baltimore about three hours late.

Nobody was injured on board the Amtrak train that might have disrupted the power lines, officials said. Amtrak sent a diesel train to the spot, and 115 passengers were taken off the disabled train and continued north. Amtrak officials hoped to have two tracks running on electrical power last night and "I've never seen such a delay in my life. Next time, I'm definitely going to fly."

Akhila Jagdish, a 21-year-old senior at Sarah Lawrence University in New York

all four tracks functioning normally today.

Passengers arriving at Penn Station about 2:30 p.m. yesterday were welcomed by a not-so-welcoming message board that read, "Due to wires down all trains are cancelled." The board indicated that five trains, bound for Boston, Washington or New York, were canceled. Two trains traveling to Newport News, Va., and Miami were delayed.

A waiting game

Janie R. Thomas, 69, and Christina Oden, 82, who are sisters, excitedly arrived at the station two hours before their 3:32 p.m. departure for Camden, S.C. But by 2 p.m. they were wondering when they would make it -- after hearing news that their train would be held up.

"I don't know how I'll pass the time," said Thomas. "I'll go buy some lottery tickets."

The sisters were going to spend time with family, leading up to the May 21 anniversary of the founding of New Hope Baptist inLucknow, S.C., where their father used to be pastor. Oden said, "We're going to stay here and wait until something will get us down there."

Amtrak had restored some service by 3 p.m., running trains hourly between Washington and Baltimore. But trains continued to be delayed.

Commuters strode through the arches of Penn Station, then slowed as they looked up at the huge overhead information board. Their shoulders slumped, and their mouths dropped open.

"Oh, no," whispered Paul Linko, a stock market data vendor from Wayne, Pa., on urban Philadelphia's Main Line. He stared at the board, not sure which way to turn. "I teach golf and I have lessons tonight," he said. "I don't know what I'm going to do."

At Union Station in Washington, stalled Metroliners sat parallel for five hours, looking like torpedoes ready to be fired.

Stranded passengers sat in small clusters or milled about waiting to glean news from periodic and quickly changing announcements. Some vied for the few cars that remained available from the train station's rental car agencies, and others whipped out cell phones and attempted to wrangle seats on flights from nearby airports.

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