Investigators sorting out Monday's Amtrak disruption

Wires were pulled down by Metroliner locomotive

May 10, 2000|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN STAFF

Investigators are sorting out what temporarily knocked out Amtrak train service between Washington and New York Monday.

Rail officials focused attention yesterday on the engine of a northbound Metroliner that left Baltimore's Penn Station just before 11 a.m. Monday. After the train passed MARC's Martin State Airport Station in eastern Baltimore County, it pulled down wires and dragged them along a 2-mile stretch of track.

Rick Remington, an Amtrak spokesman, said an electric locomotive, like the one pulling the Metroliner, usually has one of its two pantographs extended to carry power to the engine from wires above the track.

The locomotive used Monday accidentally had two arms -- one in the front and one in the rear -- extended. The additional arm may have gotten tangled in the wires, he said.

Investigators were also looking at whether the incident was related to Monday's heat. Pat Sullivan, a rail accident investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board, said similar incidents occur nationwide a couple of times a year and are often explained by high temperatures that cause the wires to expand and sag. The wires then are more vulnerable to tangling in pantographs. Sullivan said such incidents rarely result in injuries.

Monday's incident affected several thousand passengers and led to the cancellation of 27 trains from Baltimore to New York and Washington. Major delays extended into Monday evening, and travelers took buses hired by Amtrak, rented cars, found last-minute flights or called off plans.

Nobody was hurt, and passengers on the disabled train that struck the wires were picked up by another train.

Remington said it will be weeks before Amtrak knows how many customers and how much revenue it lost Monday. About 300 MARC passengers commuting north from Baltimore toward Perryville Monday evening were also delayed.

Three of Amtrak's four tracks that run through Baltimore County were blocked by wires Monday. Two had been cleared by 5 a.m. yesterday, and the third was expected to be operating by early this morning. By Monday afternoon, a few diesel-powered trains were able to pass through the troubled area.

It was Amtrak's worst inconvenience in its Northeast Corridor since September, when downed trees and standing water from Hurricane Floyd stranded trains between stations. That day, about 100 passengers abandoned a train in West Baltimore.

Amtrak trains that run through Baltimore are electrically powered except for those originating from or traveling south of Washington, where tracks can handle only diesel locomotives. Electric locomotives have run between Washington and New Haven, Conn., since the 1930s. Amtrak extended its electric service to Boston in January.

Problems with pantographs have given travelers headaches before. Five years ago, the pantograph on a train traveling from Paris to London through the tunnel under the English Channel got tangled in wires, stranding 250 passengers underground with no air conditioning or food as workers spent five hours cutting away lines.

In 1997, two commuter trains that share Amtrak's rails in Connecticut yanked down wiring, delaying 40,000 passengers on the Metro-North Commuter Railroad. When Amtrak held a ceremony in Boston in February to introduce its high-speed Acela service, the inaugural train was delayed 21 minutes because of a problem with a pantograph.

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