Computer and Electrical Issues Slow Thousands of Commuters

By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 23, 2008

A series of unrelated computer and power problems delayed thousands of riders on Virginia and Maryland commuter trains and Metro's Orange Line to Vienna yesterday and Monday.

The problems have been resolved, but passengers -- particularly those caught in Metro delays Monday night -- criticized the transit agency for not giving clear and accurate information despite repeated assurances by managers that they were taking steps to improve communication.

Yesterday's delays, which were not on Metro, stemmed from an almost three-hour breakdown in the CSX Transportation computer system that transmits instructions to passenger and freight trains running on CSX tracks from New York to Florida and west to Mississippi.

The breakdown, from 5 to 7:40 a.m., delayed commuter trains in Boston, Amtrak trains from Niagara Falls to Florida, and thousands of riders on Virginia Railway Express and MARC trains. VRE was hardest hit, with seven of its trains affected, equivalent to at least half the daily ridership of 16,500, spokesman Mark Roeber said. Two MARC trains were affected, officials said.

VRE directed riders to find other transportation; Metrorail honored VRE tickets. "It was probably most frustrating to our new riders who don't understand that we run on CSX tracks," Roeber said.

Before trains can move, they must have printed copies of bulletins that provide orders for the section of track that the train operates on, officials said. This includes temporary speed restrictions and any special instructions, such as road crossing gates that are not operating properly.

But the CSX database that transmits the train bulletins went down at 5 a.m. In addition to the commuter trains that were affected, an additional 160 freight trains on CSX tracks across the country were unable to move, CSX spokesman Bob Sullivan said. The failure was traced to a software problem at CSX's corporate headquarters in Jacksonville, Fla. The bulletin system and operations were back to normal yesterday morning. The software was scheduled to be replaced last night, Sullivan said.

In an unrelated incident, at least two northbound MARC commuter trains on the Penn Line were delayed yesterday evening, one of them by 3o to 35 minutes, MARC said. A system spokeswoman attributed those delays to problems with aging locomotives.

On Metrorail, loss of power from two Dominion Virginia Power lines and a subsequent computer failure in Metro's train control center made for a confusing and chaotic commute Monday night. On Friday, Dominion lost an electrical feeder near the Vienna Metrorail station, and Monday the power company lost its backup feeder near West Falls Church. As a result, Metro had to use power from its West Falls Church rail yard to help keep trains running.

Officials hoped to restore both feeder lines late last night.

But on Monday, there was no power at the Dunn Loring Metrorail station, and elevators and escalators did not work. Trains ran every 12 minutes between West Falls Church and Vienna, with every other train terminating at West Falls Church. That is normal service for off-peak hours, but not for the afternoon rush. During the rush hour, trains are supposed to run every six minutes.

Confusion on the hot and jammed station platforms was exacerbated by e-alerts from Metro, some riders said. One set of alerts told passengers that there would be shuttle bus service for the Dunn Loring station, but some riders said they all stations on the affected parts of the Orange Line would be served. Electronic message boards at Foggy Bottom gave no indication of the power problems down the line.

About the same time as the power problems, a computer failure at Metro's train control center meant that officials could not monitor train movement throughout the system at the height of rush hour.

The outage lasted until 6:45 p.m., officials said, while controllers kept in contact with train operators by radio , officials said. Metro chief technology officer Suzanne Peck said the cause of the failure is under investigation. Such failures are rare but have occurred.

Staff writer Martin Weil and staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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