Review finds flaws in MARC, Amtrak response to June breakdown

By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 16, 2010; 9:57 PM

The June breakdown of a MARC train that stranded 1,200 passengers in sweltering heat without air conditioning "reflects a series of organizational failures at multiple levels" of Maryland's commuter rail system, according to an investigation of the incident by the Maryland Transit Administration.

The 53-page report released Thursday cited six key factors in the breakdown of the Penn Line's evening Train 538 and the more than two-hour wait for help.

Passengers reported trouble breathing as some said temperatures inside the cars felt like more than 100 degrees. Ten people were treated by paramedics from the train that passengers dubbed "the hell train."

The causes included an electric locomotive susceptible to breaking down in high heat, MARC and Amtrak managers failing to recognize passengers' "deteriorating conditions," and Amtrak crews focusing more on fixing the train than on helping those aboard, the report said.

Amtrak crews, who operate MARC's Penn Line trains, did not keep passengers informed after the public address system failed and didn't call for emergency help soon enough, the review found. Prince George's County firefighters and paramedics were summoned to the tracks near New Carrollton by frantic 911 cell phone calls from passengers.

"Clearly we let our customers down that evening," said Maryland Transportation Secretary Beverley K. Swaim-Staley, who called for the review.

The incident highlighted what many MARC passengers describe as deteriorating service over the past several years. Though passengers say customer service has improved since June, some say the trains remain unreliable and are frequently late.

Swaim-Staley said the review's findings were not a surprise, as the MTA discovered many of the problems immediately and made some changes the next day. The MTA report was based on investigations of the June 21 incident by the MTA, Amtrak and consultant Booz Allen Hamilton.

Changes include more frequent maintenance to keep the electric locomotive engines cooler, establishing "go teams" of MARC supervisors to respond to emergencies and additional training to remind Amtrak crews to focus on passengers, rather than train mechanics, during breakdowns. The state pays CSX Transportation $44.7 million annually to operate the Brunswick and Camden lines on CSX-owned tracks. It pays Amtrak $47 million to operate the Penn Line on tracks that Amtrak owns.

The Brunswick Line carries passengers between Washington and points north and west, including Frederick and Martinsburg, W. Va. The Camden Line connects Washington and Baltimore, and the Penn Line runs from Washington through northeastern Maryland via Baltimore.

MARC trains now have bullhorns in case the public address system fails, and the MARC customer information line's hours have been extended to 11 p.m., according to the report. To ease the strain on electric locomotives, the MTA is considering ways to add more frequent but shorter trains during the morning and evening rush, the report said.

Rafi Guroian, chairman of MARC's Riders Advisory Council, praised the review for being "very truthful and forthcoming." He said MARC has improved customer service since June, stocking trains with bottled water and setting up bus service more quickly when trains break down.

However, Guroian said he was disappointed that the review focused more on responding to major breakdowns rather than preventing them. Aging electric locomotives need to be replaced, he said. Although MARC has added diesel locomotives to the Penn line, he said, they're much slower and cause more delays.

"They're coming up with Band-Aid fixes rather than looking ahead 10 years," Guroian said.

Swaim-Staley said the MTA focused on incident response because MARC trains will continue to have "challenges" as long as they run on tracks that the state doesn't control. She said the MTA has invested $200 million in MARC over the past couple of years, including buying 26 new diesel locomotives.

"We don't have additional funding available at this point" to buy new electric locomotives, she said.

Ralign T. Wells, the MTA administrator, said the agency has become proactive with Amtrak and CSX.

During the June breakdown, Wells said: "We kind of left our destiny to our contractor. That's definitely not the way we're doing business from this point forward."

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