Md. derailment delays thousands of riders

November 18, 2006|By Rona Kobell and Stephanie Desmon | Rona Kobell and Stephanie Desmon,Sun reporters

Thousands of commuters waited in long lines and crowded onto packed trains yesterday after MARC service on the Penn Line between Washington and Baltimore was canceled because an empty coal train derailed near Bowie, knocking out power to the major commuting corridor.

MARC officials said they hoped service will resume by the Monday morning rush, but a decision won't be made until tomorrow night.

Three empty CSX Corp. coal cars derailed about 7:45 p.m. Thursday between Bowie and Landover, just hours after severe storms had ripped through the area. The derailed cars pulled down power lines and left debris on the tracks.

Many morning commuters learned of the derailment via e-mail from MARC and planned other routes, driving to Metro stations in New Carrollton and Greenbelt or to Camden Line stations such as the one at Oriole Park.

Some found space on Amtrak trains that honored MARC monthly passes.

Commuters shared stories of standing shoulder to shoulder in packed cars as the trains lurched into Washington about a half-hour behind schedule.

For some, the evening proved much more trying. With all rails leading to Washington's Union Station, commuters mindful of the morning delays scrambled to arrive there before rush hour. At the station, they found long lines, harried Amtrak workers and plenty of frustrated fellow travelers.

Angela Bailey, a Harford County resident who works at the Department of Labor, was furious that Amtrak officials forced her to buy a $52 ticket to board a train home. Though she had paid $225 for a monthly commuting pass, she said Amtrak wouldn't honor it.

"I understand they can't accommodate everyone, but they should have been able to take a certain number of people with monthly passes," said Bailey, who was one of the lucky ones who braved the crowd and got on the 3:30 p.m. train from Washington to Baltimore's Penn Station.

"I know they're frustrated, and you have angry customers, and that it's Friday, and it's close to Thanksgiving. But this wasn't our fault. And the way they handled the situation was not good at all," Bailey said.

Bailey was also frustrated with MARC, which had a banner of text on its Web site yesterday afternoon warning customers that they wouldn't all be able to use the Camden Line. It gave no other options for getting home. And it hadn't given her any ideas earlier in the day for how to get to her office - Bailey happened to remember that a commuter bus stopped near Route 40, so she took it to Camden Yards to catch a train.

"The MTA, they make tons and tons of money a year. I think they could at least tell people alternate ways to commute," Bailey said.

Amtrak officials were honoring MARC monthly passes on a case-by-case basis where people were stranded, but they couldn't open the floodgates because many Amtrak trains were already full, said Cliff Black, a spokesman.

The cause of the derailment was under investigation yesterday as workers labored to fix the power lines and clear the tracks.

"There's a possibility that the weather had something to do with it," said Frank Fulton, deputy director for MARC train/commuter bus service for the Maryland Transit Administration.

Said CSX spokesman Bob Sullivan: "We regret the inconvenience this has caused."

Those who didn't learn of the derailment until their arrival at the station yesterday morning found themselves navigating an expensive mix of cabs, buses and cars as they tried to get to their destinations on time.

Danielle Torain, a researcher in Washington who lives near Randallstown, usually catches a morning train from Halethorpe, but when she arrived yesterday, there was a sign telling her there would be no MARC train service until at least noon. She called her office and learned that the Penn Line would be canceled all day. About 10 a.m., she was at the Camden Yards station, trying to find a train to get her to work.

She found that the next train wouldn't be leaving until 3:30 p.m. - leaving little of the work day to salvage.

"I have to get there," said the 22-year-old. "I'll just drive," she finally decided.

At Penn Station, 23-year-old Yonatan Warren, a student at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, was typing away on his laptop. He had come in Thursday and spent the night with a friend in Baltimore. He was trying to get to College Park, where he was to give a sermon at Shabbat services at Hillel at the University of Maryland. He had planned to take the MARC train, which drops him off near campus.

Instead, he found out that he would have to take the more expensive Amtrak train, which wouldn't take him directly to where he was going. He would then have to get on the Metro and then take a taxi.

The train he was waiting for was late and getting later. "When I first sat down, that train was delayed 30 minutes," he said. "Every 20 minutes I sit here, it gets delayed another 10 minutes."

About 90 minutes after he arrived at the station, the train was finally ready to be boarded.

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