Lessons of MARC 538

Our view: Forget what engine part failed, the real scandal of last summer's stalled MARC train was how passenger welfare was so ignored

December 20, 2010

The 1,200 passengers stuck on MARC 538 for two hours in sauna-like conditions last June may not be particularly interested in knowing that it was the failure of two electronic components in an HHP-8 electric locomotive that initially caused them to be stranded. The recently-released report regarding the infamous episode doesn't explain why the parts failed, although power fluctuations and heat are thought to be factors.

MARC riders are accustomed to delays, particularly in the summer. Heat-related breakdowns are part and parcel of the nation's underfunded, mismanaged and technologically-behind-the times rail passenger system. Maryland's commuter trains have actually improved a bit over the past decade, but overcrowding and unscheduled stops are still commonplace.

But what the findings underscore is just how woefully unprepared the Maryland Transit Administration and Amtrak, the train's operator, were for such an event — and how slow everyone was to react to the increasingly dire circumstances of the passengers. As the warden in "Cool Hand Luke" observed, "What we have here is a failure to communicate."

Poor communication from the Amtrak crew to their supervisors, between Amtrak and MARC and between everyone and the passengers. Here's a typical example: The train was identified as inaccessible even though it had broken down adjacent to a major highway, U.S. 50. Distressed MARC passengers ultimately had to call 911 on their own cell phones to get help from first responders as people became ill.

Forget electronic components in 538 or even the stalling of the rescue effort because of subsequent braking problems. U.S. passenger trains will never perform like their counterparts in Europe, China or Japan until the nation truly commits to support the basic infrastructure required for reliable high-speed service. But there's no excuse for MARC or the MTA not investing in a bullhorn, for pity's sake, or having viable evacuation plans.

Maryland Transportation Secretary Beverly Swaim-Staley has suggested part of the solution will be to keep a state employee in Amtrak's control center and call other agencies to assist in emergency situations when needed. Amtrak officials released a statement saying they take the matter seriously, too, and have already provided additional training for crews. MARC may switch to smaller trains on the Penn Line in the summer that are less taxing on locomotives.

All of those corrective actions may be helpful, but it's hard to believe that MARC service will ever improve until Amtrak and MARC employees adopt a greater concern for the well-being of their customers. What made the episode so horrific was how trapped those passengers truly were. With so many focused on fixing the train, it appears no one on the scene ever showed much concern for the health of those on board (aside from making sure they didn't leave).

No doubt it will take more than a few hours of training to get that message across. At least passengers can be grateful that the episode took place in the midst of a hotly contested gubernatorial race and thus caused Secretary Swaim-Staley and other officials to take the matter seriously enough to investigate to this degree.

It may not be within MARC's power to provide perfect service (no form of transportation does), but it can avoid another "hell train," and not just on the Penn Line but on the CSX-operated Brunswick and Camden lines, too. That's not too much to ask, whether MARC is using the latest diesel-powered engines or going back to coal and steam. It just requires that all who were involved in this boondoggle put the health and safety of passengers first from now on.

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