MARC sends apologies for recent train delays

E-mail to riders blames trouble with locomotives

August 06, 2005|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

The management of the state's MARC commuter train service has apologized to its Penn Line passengers for a series of "major service disruptions" as a result of malfunctioning locomotives.

In an e-mail to riders, MARC said that three times over the past two weeks, the locomotive on the 5:37 p.m. train from Washington has broken down - resulting in crowding and delays on later trains.

The failures involved high-horsepower electric locomotives MARC bought as an add-on to a purchase of 15 identical locomotives by Amtrak.

The commuter train agency, a part of the Maryland Transit Administration, said the reliability of these engines has been "less than ideal for both Amtrak and MARC." The locomotives, similar to those used on Amtrak's Acela train, are made by a consortium of the Canadian firm Bombardier and France's Alstom.

The locomotive problem is just one of many that have affected MARC in recent months. Trains have been delayed, and sometimes canceled, as a result of freight congestion, switch problems, equipment failure, track inspections and construction projects.

"When I have ridden it, it's crowded and we slow down because of the heat situation," said Eugene Peterson, who works in Washington and sits on the steering committee of the Transit Riders League. "They have a lot of delays - no doubt about it."

Many of the problems are beyond the control of MARC, which uses tracks owned by other railroads. Amtrak controls the Penn Line between Perryville and Washington's Union Station via Penn Station. CSX owns the Camden Line between Baltimore's Camden Station and Union Station in Washington, as well as the Brunswick line between Washington and Martinsburg, W.Va.

MARC provides about 27,000 rides each weekday - about 19,000 of them on the Penn and Camden lines.

The e-mail apologizing for the locomotives was sent Thursday. In another e-mail the same day, MARC apologized to its Camden line passengers for delays of 15 to 25 minutes because CSX was working on the tracks between the Dorsey station and Baltimore.

"As our riders know there have been delays for similar reasons earlier in the week," the e-mail said. "We were assured by CSX that the work would not interfere with passenger train performance but this obviously has not proven true. We apologize for not determining that these delays would continue all week and advising you previously."

Yesterday brought an advisory that has been arriving in riders' e-mail accounts just about every hot day this summer: that there would be delays on the Camden and Brunswick lines because of speed restrictions imposed by CSX.

The freight railroad imposes the restrictions, which hold the MARC trains to 20 mph below their usual speed, when high temperatures raise the possibility of the track developing "sun kinks" - a potential cause of derailments.

James E. Hoover, MARC's recently appointed director, said the same heat that has been causing track problems also could be contributing to malfunctions of the locomotives' sophisticated electronic systems.

Hoover said MARC would work with Amtrak, which is responsible for maintenance of the locomotives, and the manufacturers to find a solution. He would not estimate when the problems might be fixed.

Cliff Black, an Amtrak spokesman, said the national passenger railroad is having the same problems with its high-horsepower locomotives that MARC is having.

"They are the most powerful locomotives in the Amtrak fleet and probably the most powerful single-unit locomotive in general use in North America," he said. "Despite the hyperbole, they still have some reliability problems we are working very hard to manage."

Cheron Wicker, a spokeswoman for the MTA, said the unusually profuse apology was necessary to let riders know the agency recognizes the impact of the delays. "We're definitely feeling their pain," she said.

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