Commuters stranded as electrical problem halts trains between D.C. and New York

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Tens of thousands of travelers and commuters from Washington to New York were trapped on trains for more than an hour Tuesday morning when the Northeast rail corridor ran low on the juice that propels locomotives.

"Our train abruptly stopped just after the Baltimore station and did not move for over 90 minutes," said Kevin Withers of Arlington County, who boarded a 7 a.m. Amtrak Acela for business meetings in New York. "The conductor was very apologetic, but he didn't have any new information on the problem."

The problem began during the heart of rush hour, putting the brakes on scores of trains operated by Amtrak and regional commuter rail lines, including Maryland's MARC service. It originated with Amtrak, which generates its own power supply and shares electricity with commuter rail lines that serve cities between New York and Washington.

"We don't know what happened yet," Amtrak spokeswoman Tracy Connell said. "We're waiting to find out."

Amtrak was focusing its investigation on the area between Washington and Perryville, Md., another spokeswoman said.

About 7:45 a.m., the voltage dipped suddenly along the whole stretch of rail between the two cities and from Philadelphia to Harrisburg. That stopped 30 Amtrak trains on their tracks and dozens more on at least seven commuter lines.

"When it dips below a certain voltage, the trains have to stop," Connell said.

Some sat for 20 minutes; others went nowhere for two hours.

Meanwhile, stations and platforms filled to overflowing, and officials were at a loss to tell people when service might resume. The Maryland Transit Administration canceled several trains in each direction between Baltimore and Washington, offering shuttle buses from New Carrollton to Union Station. Amtrak canceled a pair of trains.

Connell said Amtrak's power supply is generated by six Amtrak-owned power stations in four states, but she said their actual locations are a secret for security reasons.

A fact sheet prepared by Amtrak for fiscal 2009 says the infrastructure supporting the overhead electrical wires was built in the 1920s and 1930s and "is in constant need of repair." The railroad mapped out a five-year restoration plan between New York and Washington.

Amtrak has experienced similar electrical malfunctions in the past. A low-voltage problem in New Jersey brought train service to a standstill two days before Christmas last year, snarling train traffic from Washington to Boston.

Withers said that those trapped Tuesday got a break from the overcast weather.

"Luckily, today was cooler than most, as the air-condition-less train would have become unbearable," he said. "This whole episode has been a huge inconvenience to my business travel today. Overall the Acela continues to be a better option than flying to New York or Philadelphia, but today was a glaring exception."

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