Leafing the track

Our view : Light rail's problems didn't begin with a bunch of dead leaves falling on the track

cost-cutting, poor decision-making are at fault and shouldn't be repeated with the Red Line

November 20, 2008

It takes about two hours to fly from Baltimore to Chicago. But if you want to take public transit from Hunt Valley to Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport to catch that plane? The 25-mile trip is going to take at least as long.

As problem-plagued as Baltimore's light rail system has been over its 15 years in service, one would think that every shortcoming had been exposed. Maryland Transit Administration officials have discovered a startling new one: falling leaves.

More specifically, the MTA was forced to trim light rail service to a near-minimum this week - one-car trains only and they can travel only as far north as North Avenue; buses shuttle riders to stations beyond that point. Thanks to a major glitch in its computerized train control system, slippery autumn leaves are causing light rail cars to automatically hit the brakes so often that it's flattening the wheels.

That's potentially unsafe. So maintenance crews are taking cars out of service to make repairs. But they're down to a dozen working cars, about half the number needed to serve the full system, and that's left the remaining trains hopelessly overcrowded and added as much as 45 minutes to travel times.

How could an entire transit system be brought to its knees by dead leaves? Like most disasters, this one has many contributors, from the decision not to install the equivalent of anti-lock brakes on the cars back in the 1980s to the relatively recent update of the train controls that failed to predict this glitch.

Light rail commuters have witnessed their share of such inconveniences over the years: single-tracking that caused bottlenecks, ticketing machines that broke down frequently, inadequate parking at many stations, and ice on the overhead power lines shutting the line down.

But wait, we're just getting warmed up - ill-timed traffic lights on Howard Street slowing trains to a crawl, too many unsupervised and unruly teenage riders at certain times of the day, and a lack of police to monitor stations.

What do most of these problems have in common? More often than not, cost-cutting. Two decades ago, then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer was promised a light rail system for a mere $290 million. It turned out to be far more, but to trim costs, state transportation officials skimped on a lot, from the design of the cars to the amount spent on security around the system.

With the east-west Red Line likely to become Baltimore's second light rail, it's up to the MTA to demonstrate that the agency can do a better job of planning and executing the system the second time around. Officials insist they can - and federally financed light rail has certainly worked far better in communities from Portland, Ore., to Pittsburgh. There's no doubt the MTA has learned a lot about what not to do.

Gov. Martin O'Malley would be wise to make sure Baltimore light rail is back in full service as soon as possible - if he wants public support for a $1 billion Red Line. He may not be responsible for the bad decisions made years ago, but it's up to his administration to fix them and prove light rail can work.

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