Losses In Lutherville

Our View: A Light Rail Accident In Lutherville Takes Two Teenagers' Lives, Raising Questions About Unusual Circumstances And Employee (in)actions

July 09, 2009

The deaths of Connor Peterson and Kyle Patrick Wankmiller, whose bodies were found on the light rail tracks in Lutherville last Sunday afternoon, have proved to be something of a mystery that is only now coming into focus.

This much is now known: It was the result of an accidental collision with a northbound train. The 17-year-olds were walking north on the southbound tracks when they were struck from behind by a train they likely assumed was traveling on the other set of rails.

At least that's what the evidence collected so far by the Maryland Transit Administration would seem to indicate - but it also raises some disturbing questions for which the MTA does not yet have adequate answers.

That the accident was a tragedy is beyond question. The Lutherville teens probably should have known better than to be walking on the light rail lines, but their poor judgment was compounded by some unusual circumstances and what may have been a fatal assumption.

The victims probably did not know that both northbound and southbound trains were sharing the southbound tracks because of an accident less than one hour earlier not far away. Someone had placed a 10-foot-long section of highway guard rail on the northbound tracks. A northbound train struck it. The guard rail was lodged underneath its metal wheels, and the train was taken out of service at the Lutherville station.

But that hardly provides a full explanation of the event. Perhaps the most serious question is this: Why didn't the light rail operator see the pair walking along the tracks and slam on the brakes? Operators normally have a full view of the tracks ahead from the front of the lead car, like a bus driver looking out on the road.

Light rail operators must hold down a throttle for the train to continue in motion, a duty that tends to keep them attentive. Texting (the bane of transit authorities since last fall's Los Angeles commuter train disaster involving an engineer allegedly distracted by cell phone messages) - or any other behavior that benefits from the use of two hands - would seem to be difficult.

Even if the operator (whom the MTA has described only as experienced) was distracted or his view obstructed, why didn't he summon emergency help immediately after the incident? If he thought he had struck something of less consequence, wouldn't prudence have at least dictated a prompt inspection of the track, particularly given the vandalism that had so recently taken place nearby?

And what about that substantial length of guard rail of unknown origin lying on the tracks? Does whoever put it there bear some culpability for the ensuing events that afternoon?

Under the circumstances, MTA Administrator Paul J. Wiedefeld's decision Wednesday to ask Baltimore County police to take the lead in investigating the incident is entirely appropriate - as are his requests to federal authorities for their expertise and assistance.

This was not only a tragic event but a peculiar one. The numerous and troubling questions surrounding the accident deserve full and satisfactory answers.

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