The Maryland Transit Administration's Web site described the delay on MARC's Penn Line as a "minor disruption," but for about 1,700 commuters yesterday morning, it was anything but that.
An engine problem that brought a Washington-bound train to a halt was one of a series of glitches that created a domino effect that left about 1,200 passengers stranded on the tracks and canceled trains for several hundred others.
MTA officials said some passengers didn't get to Washington's Union Station until about 11:15 a.m.
"They had every right to be frustrated. It was a terrible commute," said Ira Silverman, MARC's chief transportation officer.
While minor delays and equipment problems are a routine occurrence on MARC, Silverman said a disruption on the scale of yesterday's occurs no more than two or three times a year.
That's more than enough for Phyllis Shocket, a longtime MARC rider who left her house about 5:30 a.m. to catch the 6:20 a.m. train to Washington. The Pikesville resident said that a few minutes after the train left Penn Station, she felt a staccato-like jerking every few feet.
"It didn't sound right, didn't feel right," said Shocket, 54, an executive at a nonprofit near Union Station. "As soon as the train started doing these jerking motions, I knew it was not going to be a pretty sight."
It wasn't. Train No. 407 stopped about two miles south of the BWI station after a computer detected an electrical problem in the locomotive and shut it down, MTA spokeswoman Holly Ellison said.
The normal procedure would have been for the following train, No. 509, to push the earlier train into the next station - a procedure that would typically take 30 to 40 minutes, according to Silverman.
But in this case, the first train's brakes locked up, and neither train could budge. Technicians from Amtrak, who are responsible for maintaining the engines, were summoned.
Because the MARC system is essentially running at capacity, MTA officials said, there was no option of bringing up another locomotive. "There's no room to say, `I'm going to put a spare train into service,'" Silverman said.
Meanwhile, Shocket said, it was becoming "pretty uncomfortable" aboard the train as the heat and electricity went out. She said the conductors offered scant information on when the train would get moving again.
While Shocket stayed in her seat reading, some other passengers in the "quiet car" left to chat with commuters in other cars to see if anyone had more information. A few passengers were getting e-mail updates from MARC on their BlackBerries, but no one seemed to know how long the delay would last.
Finally, about 8:50 a.m., the second train began to push the first - at a pace of 20 mph, Ellison said.
The two trains made it to the Odenton station about 9 a.m., MTA officials said. Shocket and some of the passengers transferred to an Amtrak train that made an unscheduled stop there 20 minutes later. Others continued south with MARC.
Shocket said she arrived at her office about 11 a.m.
The southbound problems translated into northbound problems because the locomotives powering the trains to Washington normally make the trip back to Baltimore as well.
By 11 a.m., northbound trains No. 406 and 408 had been canceled, as well as southbound No. 419. MTA's Web site reported "minor" problems.
Sheepish MARC officials later conceded that the person who updated the Web site shouldn't have used that description.
"It wasn't a minor disruption. It turned into a major disruption," said Frank Fulton, the MTA assistant director for the MARC trains.