Amtrak apologizes for 'communications breakdown' that led to 11-hour D.C.-N.Y. trip

December 19, 2010|By Frank D. Roylance, The Baltimore Sun

Amtrak officials apologized Sunday for a "communications breakdown" early Friday that made a signal failure and seven-hour delays on the Northeast corridor all the more miserable for at least 1,700 passengers stuck overnight on trains and in stations.

"It doesn't matter what the cause was — our communications should have been better and that is something we're working to improve," Amtrak spokesman Steve Kulm said.

Greg Hard, 23, a University of Pennsylvania student who spent the night at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia waiting for a train home to Boston, called the experience "horrible, Kafkaesque."

"Amtrak failed to keep their customers informed and made a bad, unavoidable situation much worse," he said.

Amtrak says problems started when a commercial power line fell on overhead wires at about 8:45 p.m. Thursday. That shut down the corridor's signaling system and all trains had to come to a halt.

Of the eight affected trains, Kulm said, seven were held at stations. One, Train 188, a Northeast Regional from Washington to New York with 400 people on board, stopped just north of Perryville.

The train left Washington shortly before 7:30 p.m. and was stranded for several hours before being towed back to Perryville. The Washington to New York trip normally would have taken less than 31/2 hours, but the train didn't arrive in New York until about 6:15 a.m.

"Throughout this, the lights and heat on the train were operational," Kulm said. Except for a "minimal" period of time when the stranded train was being coupled to the tow train, "the overhead power system was still working," he said.

That wasn't how Stephen Tschida, a television reporter for an ABC affiliate in Washington, described it. He was aboard the train and wrote about his ordeal on Twitter.

"People are cold, hungry, and frightened," he said in one tweet. "I hear yelling in other cars." At one point, he tweeted, "People are storming the conductor."

"Obviously there was a breakdown between what we knew and what we were telling passengers on board," Kulm said. "We were making station announcements. We were making announcements to the people on the trains. As to the quality of the information, or the frequency of the information passed on, I can't say."

At about 10 p.m. a second train, the 2171 Acela from New York to Washington, was dispatched southbound from Wilmington, and after about 10 miles came upon the Delmarva Power electric line that had burned out and fallen across the railroad's catenaries, the overhead wires that power the trains.

Now that train, too, was stuck. It would be just after 1 a.m. before the power company removed the fallen line. But the signaling system would be out for five more hours, and that meant all trains on the corridor would have to move at reduced speeds and all switches had to be thrown manually, Kulm said.

But almost none of this was known by passengers on the trains or in stations.

Passengers at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia were "in a state of anarchy," Hard said in an e-mail message Sunday.

"Everyone was restless, and even more angry since Amtrak didn't know WHERE the trains were for the entire night, or when they may or may not arrive," he wrote.

At one point, passengers swarmed the platform without instructions and had to be sent back into the station. Hard said he was told at 2:30 a.m. not to take an Amtrak-provided bus to New York because he was going to Boston. He later learned that he could have boarded the bus and caught a train in New York for Boston.

"They had NO idea what was going on, which caused more confusion than was necessary," he wrote. Hard finally arrived in Boston at 1:45 Friday afternoon, seven hours late.

"The fact that it took nine hours or more to resolve this situation makes me concerned about the state of Amtrak and our rail infrastructure," he wrote. He also questioned Amtrak's ability to respond to such situations "both in terms of their operational and emergency response at the scene [and] their internal and external communication with customers."

Said Amtrak's Kulm: "Sometimes the [communications system] works very well, sometimes it breaks down. In this case it's pretty clear it broke down. … Yes, we want to improve how we do this. Because we don't want anyone on any train in the future to have that sort of experience."

The delay comes months after the June breakdown of a Baltimore-bound commuter train that left up to 1,200 people sweltering inside for two hours on what became known as the "hell train." That incident prompted an investigation coordinated by the Federal Railroad Administration.

The report found that the Amtrak crew lost sight of passengers' needs aboard Penn Line Train 538, stopped near the New Carrollton station, and that communications broke down and MARC managers were slow to respond. The report also showed a long-standing problem with maintaining power to long, heavy trains in hot weather — prompting MARC and Amtrak to consider running shorter trains at more frequent intervals.

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 as well.

Baltimore Sun reporter Jessica Anderson and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

Maryland weather blog: Frank Roylance on meteorology

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