Governor Martin O'Malley talks with MARC train passengers… (Baltimore Sun photo by Jed…)
If the 900 passengers stranded Monday for two hours in the sweltering heat of a MARC train had a dollar for all the apologies they have received, they'd at least be close to a decent cappuccino. The heads of Amtrak and the Maryland Transit Administration have expressed their mea culpas, and Gov. Martin O'Malley picked up the theme with an "I care" trip to D.C. Thursday morning, but all are a little short on explanations.
What is this, a major airline? To be stuck that long on a stalled northbound commuter train just eight minutes outside Washington's Union Station is déjà vu for the tarmac-sitters among us. But at least there's an air passenger bill of rights. MARC customers have bupkis — unless Starbucks is cashing in apologies these days.
In February, we lauded recently-appointed MTA Administrator Ralign T. Wells for admitting the agency goofed when it allowed Metro trains to become snow-bound during a major storm. At this rate, he's going to run out of ways to say he's sorry. He's still got to cover balky light rail ticket machines, ill-behaved teens on city buses and the shortage of midday parking at Penn Station before year's end.
Investigators don't yet know what went wrong with MARC Train 538, but equipment failures happen in every mode of transportation, and MARC's on-time record has seen worse days. Officials claim a new locomotive was dispatched to the scene fairly promptly, but braking problems stymied the replacement engine for several hours.
What's more troubling about the incident is the response and particularly the disregard shown for the health, safety and comfort of so many passengers. Surely within the first hour it must have occurred to Amtrak and MARC officials that conditions on the train had become unendurable, especially for older riders, children and those with medical conditions.
Either the conductors on board 538 or Amtrak and MARC officials monitoring the system could have summoned a rescue train or buses at any time, but they no doubt hesitated because of the havoc that would cause for MARC's schedule. But when removing a train from service strands passengers in air-conditioned and restaurant-filled Union Station, that's a far better situation then leaving passengers roasting in a powerless train in 90-degree heat with no open windows or doors.
Both organizations have promised a thorough review of the incident, but that's a familiar refrain to MARC commuters, particularly after prolonged delays in hot summer months when trains are more prone to mechanical problems. This newspaper's archives tell the story of one such MARC incident that took three hours to resolve on the Camden Line — on July 7, 1992.
So after at least 18 years of this, how is it possible that MARC does not have explicit guidelines on what actions should be taken on behalf of passengers? Granted there are locations so inaccessible that MARC has few options available, but New Carrollton isn't one of them. Some passengers eventually pulled out emergency window exits and jumped to the gravel bed below to escape the heat.
It's all very well to issue apologies, but it's better to hold feet to the fire. Mr. Wells has promised to "improve the response" of both Amtrak and MARC. Passengers have the right to expect specific and meaningful reforms.