Safety Issues Idle New Marc Engines

State, Builder Disagree On What Is Needed For U.s. Approval To Operate

August 14, 2009|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,michael.dresser@baltsun.com

Three new MARC locomotives that were expected to be put into service in June are still confined to a train yard in Locust Point because of a dispute between the state and the manufacturer over safety testing, according to the Maryland Department of Transportation.

The locomotives - the first of a new fleet of 26 being purchased at a cost of $100 million - will not be deployed until the Maryland Transit Administration is satisfied they have been thoroughly vetted, Transportation Department spokesman Jack Cahalan said Thursday in response to inquiries from The Baltimore Sun.

On May 6, the MTA staged a news conference at which Gov. Martin O'Malley arrived at Camden Station aboard one of the locomotives. The governor, speaking from talking points provided by the MTA, said the engines were expected to be on the tracks within four to six weeks. It has been more than three months since he made that statement, and the locomotives are still not in service.

The delays have not gone unnoticed by MARC riders, who had been led to believe the new locomotives would help improve service that has been handicapped by frequent engine breakdowns.

Previously, the MTA had offered only vague responses to questions about why it was taking so long to put the new machines in service - saying they were undergoing testing by its safety department.

Many MARC riders were not satisfied by the answers.

"Just how much testing do they need? Aren't these engines brand new? Wouldn't they have been tested before they ever left the factory?" Ralph Woods of Sykesville demanded in an e-mail. "Well, this has made the governor look like a fool - he makes a big deal of displaying the first new locomotive in MAY and it's STILL not in service."

Cahalan gave a detailed explanation Thursday of the disagreement that has held up deployment of the locomotives.

According to Cahalan, the dispute centers around a testing regimen known as FMECA - Failure Modes, Effects, Criticality Analysis. He said the MTA's independent safety office - with the backing of Administrator Paul J. Wiedefeld - contends that additional tests are required to secure Federal Railroad Administration approval to put the locomotives into service, while the manufacturer, MotivePower, believes the tests that have been done are sufficient.

While the dispute has continued, the other 23 locomotives in the fleet have remained at the company's facility in Boise, Idaho. Cahalan said the MTA is "drawing a line in the sand" because the performance of the new locomotives will have a "huge" impact on MARC operations for the next 25 years.

"Bottom line is MTA is going to get this right," Cahalan said.

He said that while the dispute has dragged on for weeks, the state and the company are not at an impasse and have been making progress in their discussions. Cahalan said money is not the issue because the state has agreed that it will pay the cost of the additional testing it is demanding. But he could not give an estimate of when the locomotives would be released for service.

The stakes of the dispute were underscored yesterday when MARC Penn Line Train 509 was canceled because of what Cahalan called "an issue" with one of the MTA's locomotives. According to Cahalan, the MTA's plan is to retire that locomotive once the new engines are in service.

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