Amtrak, MARC faulted in 'hell train' report

Investigation details operational, communications lapses

December 16, 2010|By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

The June breakdown of a Baltimore-bound commuter train — which left up to 1,200 people sweltering for about two hours and became known as the "hell train" — was worsened by the managerial lapses of MARC and Amtrak, according to a report released Thursday.

Once Penn Line Train 538 stopped near New Carrollton station, communications broke down, the Amtrak crew lost sight of passengers' needs and MARC managers were slow to respond. The report, based on an investigation coordinated by the Federal Railroad Administration, concluded that the June 21 incident reflected "a series of organizational failures at multiple levels."

The breakdown occurred on an evening when the mercury hovered around 90 degrees, and passengers said temperatures on the sealed train became even hotter, until they began evacuating in spite of the crew's orders. With MARC and Amtrak slow to call in emergency workers, passengers summoned help with calls to 911.

The report also exposed a longstanding problem with maintaining power to long, heavy trains in hot weather — prompting MARC and Amtrak to consider running shorter trains at more frequent intervals. Such a move could involve a restructuring of Amtrak's schedule in the Northeast Corridor and additional spending by the Maryland Transit Administration.

In a memo to Maryland Transportation Secretary Beverly Swaim-Staley, MTA Administrator Ralign T. Wells identified "critical factors" in the incident, which led to the hospitalization of several passengers and unflattering national publicity about MARC and Amtrak. The stranding of what Gov. Martin O'Malley called the "hell train" became an issue in this year's gubernatorial election and a focal point for dissatisfaction with unreliable MARC service and spotty communication with passengers.

Swaim-Staley and Wells met with members of the MARC Riders Advisory Council in Washington Thursday afternoon to discuss the report.

Rafi Guroian, chairman of the council, said afterward that the report was "very realistic about what went on that day." He said he was disappointed, however, that it concentrated on how to respond to the next incident rather than on how to prevent a repeat.

After the incident, Penn Line operator Amtrak took much of the responsibility for the failure to respond promptly to the misery of passengers. But the report was highly critical of MARC officials, too.

"MARC management left the task of resolving the incident in the hands of the contractor, Amtrak, rather than becoming a more active participant," the report said. "MARC management failed to dispatch staff to the scene in order to evaluate the situation, communicate directly with MARC management and assist in coordinating an appropriate response."

In an interview Thursday, Swaim-Staley said she holds MARC and its staff equally responsible for the failures that day. She pledged that in the future the MTA would call on agencies such as the State Highway Administration to help deal with emergencies.

"If your providers are not being responsive, it's up to MARC and the MTA to reach out to the department, to the SHA, to anyone they need to get the resources they need to deliver," she said.

The report says that MARC employees were disciplined in the aftermath of the incident, but Swaim-Staley — citing state personnel law — declined to comment on the number of workers affected and the severity of the punishment.

One rider who suffered through the roasting aboard Train 538, congressional staffer Jaime Lennon, said she found the report to be "very thorough."

"Obviously they took the incident as seriously as was warranted and made some pretty good recommendations," she said.

Lennon, a communications aide to Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Md., was particularly glad to see the recommendation that MARC equip crews with bullhorns to use when the public address system fails — as it did aboard Train 538. "The biggest issue that day was the lack of communications to the passengers," she said.

In fact, many of the report's recommendations focus on improving MARC's communications with passengers, Amtrak and CSX, operator of the Camden and Brunswick lines. Among other things it recommended cross-training of employees of MARC and the two railroads in emergency response and communications procedures.

Swaim-Staley and Wells said the MTA had learned many lessons from the incident and began applying them as early as last summer, when the system was tested by numerous 90-degree days and severe storms.

In his memo, Wells said the critical factor in bringing the train to a stop was the failure of two electronic components on the MARC-owned HHP-8 electric locomotive. The investigation did not determine the cause of the failure but said heat in the engine compartment and a power fluctuation in Amtrak's overhead power system were likely factors, he said.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.