MTA official says rail shutdown might have been prevented

Decision in 2000 not to install system to prevent train cars from slipping seen as crucial

November 21, 2008|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,

The current shutdown of half of Baltimore's light rail line likely could have been prevented had Maryland Transit Administration engineers decided in 2000 to spend about $4 million on an electronic system designed to prevent trains from sliding on slippery tracks, according to a top MTA official.

Henry Kay, the MTA's deputy administrator for planning and engineering, said that as a result of the decision, Maryland's light rail is one of the few in the country without the so-called "slip-slide protection" to protect the wheels of its cars.

The importance of the technology has been driven home this year by a series of problems on the north-south transit line - culminating in the decision last week to suspend all service between North Avenue and Hunt Valley because the MTA had too few cars available to maintain service on the full line.

Kay said there is no way now to quantify the cost of the decision in terms of lost service, additional maintenance, overtime and other expense. But he said there's little question the MTA would have been better off had it invested in the technology, which would have roughly doubled the cost of a crash-avoidance system it did adopt.

"That would have been $4 million well spent," Kay said.

Service was still restricted yesterday to the part of the line between North Avenue and the two southern ends at Glen Burnie and Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.

The emergency shutdown was announced late last week as fallen leaves along the northern section led to recurring wheel damage that was forcing cars out of service more quickly than they could be repaired.

Falling leaves are a perennial problem in the rail industry, but the annual event had not led to big service interruptions in the past.

What is different this year is that last April, the MTA discovered a potentially dangerous crack in the wheel of one of its cars as it was being moved in a maintenance yard.

Kay said the discovery triggered a rigorous examination of the wheels of all the cars and an inquiry into what could have caused the crack. What had been happening, the examiners determined, was that the wheels were being flattened in spots where the automated train protection system reacted to slippery tracks by forcing a hard stop. Those flat spots, they found, put the wheels in danger of cracking.

Kay said that knowledge forced the MTA to change its procedures, even at the cost of service reductions. "Once we became aware of the risk, we had to mitigate it," he said.

Before 2006, such damage was relatively uncommon because the braking was left to human operators who had developed a feel for how to bring the trains to a stop smoothly. But that year, the MTA began using a $4.1 million train protection system designed to prevent crashes. The move was prompted by two crashes at BWI in 2000 in which operators failed to slow trains entering the station there. The trains hit a barrier, and 35 people were injured.

The MTA decided to retrofit the light rail trains with the train protection system as part of a roughly $160 million double-tracking project in 2002-2006. But in drawing up the procurement specification, officials decided to pass on the slip-slide technology. According to Kay, MTA officials concluded the train protection system would hit the brakes only rarely.

Last spring, with the discovery of the cracked wheel and the determination of its cause, the MTA's assumptions changed. The agency kept pulling cars off the tracks to repair or replace wheels - leaving a reduced fleet in service. Riders encountered long delays and crowded trains.

The agency gradually put enough cars back in service to eliminate the worst of the waits and the crowding, but at no point this summer or fall was it able to return to the frequency of service it was offering before the crack was found.

Then, starting in late September, came the leaves. The MTA found its wheels being flattened as quickly as it could fix them. Early last week, the agency decided to suspend service on one segment of the line - from Timonium to Hunt Valley - and replace it with a bus shuttle.

But that still left trains running over the most wooded section, where trains run through parkland along the Jones Falls Expressway. Trains were dropping out of service faster than the shop could repair them. One day last week, three were taken out of service in one day.

By last Friday, Kay said, with as few as six cars of the system's 53 cars fit for service, it was clear the MTA would have to sharply reduce light rail service or stop running at all. Kay said a permanent solution won't come until the fleet undergoes a midlife overhaul in 2011-2012. For now, the agency is looking for a software fix that will limit further damage to the wheels. He would not estimate how long that would take.

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