Focus On Track Obstruction That Preceded Boys' Deaths

Guardrail Placed On Rails Figured In Fatal Chain Of Events

July 11, 2009|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,

Even before Sunday's fatal accident in which two teenage boys were hit by a Maryland Transit Administration light rail train in Lutherville, a serious crime apparently took place a short distance away.

According to the MTA, someone - whose identity is not yet known to the public - placed a large section of highway guardrail across the northbound tracks just south of the station.

That act of vandalism - if not outright sabotage - has been overshadowed by the tragedy that occurred about an hour later, but it set in motion the chain of events that led to the deaths of Kyle Patrick Wankmiller and Connor Peterson, both 17.

According to MTA spokeswoman Jawauna Greene, the boys were struck by a northbound train as they walked on southbound tracks that had been put into two-way operation because the roughly 10-foot-long guardrail had damaged an earlier train. "It started the whole chain of events," she said.

Transit experts say an object of that size on the rails could endanger people's lives.

"If a train had hit something like that, it could have derailed the train," said Lou Sanders, director of technical services at the American Public Transit Association. He said sabotage would not be too strong a term for such an action.

Nevertheless, Greene acknowledged that MTA police did not immediately treat the site of the guardrail strike as a major crime scene. She said it is not uncommon for people to place objects on the tracks, and the agency puts an emphasis on clearing the obstruction and keeping traffic moving.

"People have placed things on the tracks for a while now and we generally just clean it up and keep moving," she said. "It's really considered a maintenance issue."

Not counting naturally occurring obstructions such as fallen tree limbs, Greene said the MTA has found a wide variety of objects placed on its light rail tracks since the system opened in the early 1990s.

"The objects change, the locations change," she said. "Guardrail is pretty extreme." Without providing specifics, the spokeswoman said it was not the first time a guardrail had been found on MTA tracks.

The issue is a difficult one for public transit agencies because it pits their need to protect riders' safety against the mission of getting them to their destination in a timely manner. Preserving a crime scene could cause major delays.

"The only time you're going to get a large, major investigation is when it derails a train," said Doug Ward, director of the Division of Public Safety Leadership at the Johns Hopkins School of Education. "The question here is what's the best use of police resources."

On one hand, public transit agencies try to play down the dangers of such actions; on the other, they warn of dire consequences.

Greene rejected the description of the guardrail incident as sabotage. "The MTA views this as an act of trespassing."

Like most railroads, the MTA's main message to the public is: Stay away from our rails.

"It's dangerous at all times to be on our rails and it's not acceptable to place anything on the rail tracks. You never know what the consequences would be for people operating the train, the people riding the train or even yourself," Greene said.

She acknowledged that the agency had not publicized previous cases of obstructed tracks. "We can't create a panic that there's this grand conspiracy to place things on our tracks."

Sanders, the transit association official, understands why agencies play down such incidents. "You don't necessarily want to make a big deal of this stuff because you get copycats."

Still, transit agencies nationwide must deal with obstructions that have been placed on tracks, he said. "It happens occasionally. People are people. You find a [grocery] market's basket on the tracks every once in a while."

Baltimore's light rail system is vulnerable to such vandalism because it runs through a number of wooded areas where trespassers' activities would not be very visible. The stretch south of Lutherville is one of them.

Greene said records are kept of objects placed on the tracks and that police investigate if they notice a pattern of activity. But she said no pattern had been identified in Sunday's incident.

In that case, a train struck the guardrail on the tracks south of the Lutherville station about 2:10 p.m. The operator stopped the train but was unable to dislodge the twisted metal from the wheels and was instructed to try to get the train to the Lutherville station, according to the MTA.

With the train crippled on the northbound track, the MTA switched to two-way operations on the southbound track. The two boys were walking north, with their backs to an oncoming train, when they were struck, Greene said. MTA officials theorized, after viewing video from the train, that the boys might have believed the train was approaching on its normal track.

Still an apparent mystery is where the guardrail came from.

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