Horrendous Thursday commute for thousands of Washington area travelers

Thousands of Washington-area residents suffered through a horrendous commute throughout Thursday. On Friday, they shouldn’t have to.

Amtrak and MARC, the commuter rail lines that provide service between Washington and Baltimore, suspended service because the wires that power the trains were downed. MARC sent buses to several stops along the line, including Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport, to help riders, but most experienced long waits.

During the evening commute, congestion and delays continued. But Amtrak reopened the last of its tracks between Washington and Baltimore by 8:15, and the railroad expected things to be fine for Friday’s commute. A spokeswoman for MARC also said the problems had been fixed.

Steve Kulm, an Amtrak spokesman, said that overhead catenary wires, which supply electricity to the trains and are not commercial electric wires, went down in ­Bowie, causing the outages. He added that a pantograph — a piece of equipment that extends from the top of the train and touches the wires so electricity can flow to the locomotive — got caught up in the wires.

Shortly before the height of the evening rush, Amtrak officials were operating trains on two of the three tracks that run in that area, but the capacity was still limited. Hours earlier, about 1,500 passengers on 12 trains between the District and Philadelphia were stuck in delays, officials said.


Passengers are seen after being stuck on a MARC train for several hours on Thursday. (Photo courtesy James Sondow)

“It’s not every day, but it does happen,” Kulm said. “And as you can see, this does cause significant disruptions.”

Kulm said the catenary wires were built in the 1930s.

Paulette Austric, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Transportation Authority, said that service to MARC’s Penn Line, which uses Amtrak tracks, was affected. She said service resumed at 4:20 p.m., with one train delayed in the evening to accommodate additional passengers.

“When these lines come down, you have to go in there and fix them,” Austrich said. “And you can’t have service running.”

Troubles on Metro’s Red Line also delayed service in the District on Thursday, starting at the NoMa-Gallaudet station about 9 a.m.

Shortly after that, Metro alerted riders to a track problem near Farragut North. The problem involved a “smoldering bolt” on the third rail. Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said power to the third rail had to be taken down so crews could remove the bolt.

He wrote in an e-mail that smoldering bolts are “not common, but not unheard of.”

“Anytime you put 750 volts through a piece of metal, there is the potential for that electricity to find its way to places you don’t want it to be,” Stessel said.

James Sondow and his wife, Elizaveta, who is five months pregnant, caught a MARC train that left the Odenton station, just outside Baltimore, at 9:25 a.m. and should have arrived in Washington just after 10. Instead, they got to the District at 1:43 p.m. Fellow passengers gave Elizaveta water and cookies because she was hungry, not having eaten since breakfast.

The New York couple were visiting a friend in Baltimore and had headed to the District to meet with students from James’s drawing and sculpture class to tour the Library of Congress and the Capitol.

For Elizaveta, who is from St. Petersburg, it was an ad­ven­ture. “In Russia, a lot of things work really poorly, but one thing that does run on time is the trains,” she said.

Dana Hedgpeth is the Washington Post’s lead reporter in covering the Metro rail and bus systems in the D.C. region and the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority (WMATA) that runs them.
Victoria St. Martin covers breaking news and Prince William County for The Post's Local desk.
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