Water Main Break Derails Train Service

Halethorpe Incident Disrupts Amtrak, Marc

Water Supply Curbed In Howard, Balto. Co.

April 30, 2009|By Mary Gail Hare, Liz F. Kay and Jacques Kelly | Mary Gail Hare, Liz F. Kay and Jacques Kelly,mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com, liz.kay@baltsun.com and jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

A water main break in southwest Baltimore County crippled train service along the Northeast corridor for most of Wednesday, and delays will continue into Thursday.

Amtrak and MARC train service between Baltimore and Washington were stalled by the pre-dawn water main break in the 5100 block of Washington Blvd. in Halethorpe, affecting dozens of trains and thousands of passengers. Water, mud and tree branches covered the tracks.

The major water main break was the second in two days. On Tuesday, a break blocks from the Inner Harbor flooded streets and closed offices and businesses in downtown Baltimore.

After Wednesday's incident, train service resumed on the second of four railroad tracks by 4:10 p.m., but Amtrak has limited speeds to 15 mph there, said spokeswoman Karina Romero.

The remaining two tracks are expected to reopen Thursday, she said.

Until then, passenger, commuter and freight trains have to share the available tracks, plus they must make room for commercial trains that were canceled Wednesday, said Jawauna Greene, a Maryland Transit Administration spokeswoman.

MTA officials will determine overnight whether bus shuttles will still be needed to connect commuters with stations south of Baltimore.

Riders were advised to check the MTA Web site, www.mtamaryland.com.

Wednesday's break affected water service to parts of southwest Baltimore County, led to calls for water conservation from Southwest Baltimore through Howard County and also left rail travelers fuming.

"It was chaos. We had no consistent information," said Natalie Ketcham, town manager of Redding, Conn., who was stuck at Baltimore's Penn Station.

Ketcham had business in Washington and was headed back to Connecticut when her train encountered the water break. She said passengers were put on a commuter train to Odenton, then a shuttle bus to Penn Station.

The rupture of the 36-inch pre-stressed concrete pipe, installed in the 1970s, reduced Howard County's city water supply by 25 percent. Howard Public Works Director James Irvin said the problem resulted from a design defect in the pipe. The wire used to strengthen the pipes had corroded. The county was alerted by sensors in the area used to detect problems.

Kocher said defects in this type of pipe had caused major breaks in other parts of the Baltimore region and across the country.

The water was shut off at about 3 p.m., and then Baltimore's department of public works, which also operates the water system for the county, began building a gravel road to allow contractors to replace the pipe on Thursday, said spokesman Kurt Kocher. Afterward, the ballast under the railroad tracks can be restored, he said.

Typically, repairs can take two to three days, unless the failure is more general, Irvin said. "We have a long-term solution to replace that pipe in another location, but it's about one year away," Irvin said.

Six Baltimore County schools in Halethorpe and Arbutus closed Wednesday morning as a result of the break.

At Baltimore's Penn Station, rail passengers were stuck.

"I'm going to miss my history, English and math classes," said Mary Pierce minutes after she had walked into the station, looked at the arrivals board and saw her train to Bowie State University had been canceled.

"It was a madhouse in D.C.," said Ron Redmond of Washington as he sat in Baltimore awaiting a train to take him to his son's Connecticut home. "Trains here are not like Europe."

He arrived at Union Station early Wednesday and found the terminal "crowded with long lines."

He said that he received "four differing pieces of information" about how he was to reach his destination.

By midmorning, Amtrak was using Penn Station as a shuttle point for passengers going north and south. As soon as passengers left southbound Acela trains, its cars were quickly cleaned and northbound passengers scrambled aboard.

Travelers going north from Washington took a train to Odenton, where they boarded shuttle buses that took them around the water main break to the Baltimore station or the BWI stop.

Amtrak accepted whatever tickets they carried, whether for regional or premium-priced Acela service.

"The train is usually the best way to travel," said Vince Jarvie of Howard County. "This is the first time I've seen something like this happen."

Not all in Baltimore's Penn Station worried about getting to their destination.

Darrell Forbes, a student at the Tai Sophia Institute in Laurel, asked permission to take the pulses of passengers awaiting trains. He said he was doing this exercise as part of his training in acupuncture.

"On most days, people are stuck to the BlackBerries or laptops and can't be bothered," he said of his student exercise. "You all seem pretty relaxed today."

Baltimore Sun reporter Larry Carson contributed to this article.

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