900 riders stuck on MARC train for more than two hours with no air conditioning

By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Officials from MARC, Amtrak and the Federal Railroad Administration are investigating why a MARC train stalled eight minutes after it left Union Station on Monday evening and how 900 passengers were stranded in rail cars without air conditioning for more than two hours in sweltering heat, Maryland's transit administrator said Tuesday.

Ralign Wells, head of the Maryland Transit Administration, said the investigation will seek to determine why the electric locomotive broke down and why its brakes jammed, making it impossible for another locomotive to pull the train back to Union Station relatively quickly. Passengers, including some who reported trouble breathing, used emergency handles to remove the train's windows as outside temperatures hovered at 90 degrees and the train's air conditioning shut down.

The Federal Railroad Administration will determine whether the train's crew properly carried out emergency preparedness plans required for passenger trains, spokesman Warren Flatau said. One of the agency's safety specialists happened to be commuting home on the stranded train, "so we have some firsthand knowledge," Flatau said.

The Prince George's County Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department began getting 911 calls from stranded passengers at 7:50 p.m., after train 538 on the Penn Line had come to a stop near New Carrollton at 6:23 p.m., officials said. About 10 people were treated at the scene for heat-related problems, including profuse sweating, nausea and dizziness, said fire department spokesman Mark Brady. Three of those passengers, including one having an asthma attack, were taken to a hospital, Brady said.

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) called the incident on the state's commuter rail line "utterly unacceptable." MARC needs a better system for getting passengers off broken trains more quickly, O'Malley told reporters after an unrelated event in Baltimore.

"It's absolutely unacceptable from a service standpoint and a safety standpoint that people were stranded out there" on such a hot day, O'Malley said.

MARC passengers said they are accustomed to unreliable trains, particularly on hot days. On Tuesday afternoon, MARC and Amtrak trains were delayed for 25 minutes because of a heat-related power outage, an Amtrak spokeswoman said.

Passengers on the train that stalled Monday whom The Washington Post interviewed and who posted comments online faulted train officials for not telling them what was happening beyond two initial announcements saying that the train had broken down. As the heat grew inside the cars, passengers said, people fanned themselves with the laminated emergency evacuation instructions and called home to waiting family members.

One passenger said he didn't see anyone who appeared in charge until transit police boarded after an hour and showed passengers how to remove the windows using an emergency handle. Passengers said some onboard, including a woman with an infant, jumped from the train onto some track-side gravel to escape the heat inside. A passing train took on 800 of the passengers at 8:20 p.m., and the last 100 were picked up at 9:40 p.m., a MARC spokesman said.

Flatau said federal safety regulations require that passengers receive onboard announcements in an emergency. Wells said the investigation will examine how well passengers were informed and whether Amtrak officials took too long to try to fix the broken train before getting passengers onto another one.

Amtrak operates MARC trains for the state. Wells said the review will also ensure that there is bottled water on every train for emergencies. Several passengers interviewed by The Post said they saw no bottled water.

Wells said he would ride train 538 Tuesday evening to speak with passengers. "They have my sincere apologies, because what happened [Monday] night did not meet our standards," he said.

Amtrak President Joseph Boardman said that Amtrak will take "corrective action" after the investigation.

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