Thursday, December 16, 2010

MARC 'hell train' report faults MTA, Amtrak

December 16, 2010

The management of the Maryland Transit Administration's MARC service and Amtrak both bear responsibility for serious communications and operational lapses that left up to 1,200 commuters sweltering for about two hours near New Carrollton during a June locomotive breakdown on what became known as the "hell train," according to an investigation report released today.

The report,  based on a debriefing held by the Federal Railroad Administration, concluded  the June  21 incident  aboard MARC Penn  Line Train 538 reflected "a series of organizational failures at multiple levels." It also exposed a longstanding problem with  maintaining power to long,  heavy trains in hot weather -- prompting MARC and Amtrak to consider running shorter trains at more frequent intervals.
In a memo to Maryland Transportation Secretary Beverly Swaim-Staley,  MTA Administrator Ralign T. Wells identified  what he called "critical factors" in an incident that led to the hospitalization of several MARC passengers and unflattering national publicity about MARC and Amtrak. The stranding of what  Gov. Martin O'Malley called the "hell train" became an issue in this year's gubernatorial  election and  a focal point for dissatisfaction with unreliable MARC service and spotty communication with passengers.
Wells said the critical factor in bringing the train to a stop on its way to Baltimore was  the failure of two critical electronic components on the MARC-owned HHP-8 electric locomotive that was hauling the train. 

Once that happened, Wells said, the problem was  compounded by the failure of Amtrak, the MTA's contractor for operations on the Penn Line,to provide  MARC management with "accurate and timely" information about  the breakdown.  In addition,  he said, the Amtrak crew  focused their  efforts on the mechanical problem and failed to pay attention to the well-being of the passengers or to communicate with them.

The report  also criticized MARC management for failing to recognize the seriousness  of the  incident and respond aggressively  to it. Wells said neither MARC nor Amtrak acted quickly enough to call in first responders, leaving it to MARC passengers to summon help with calls to 911.

The report proposes fixes to each of the problems, including a move toward shorter trains that would put less strain on locomotives during hot weather. It said that to make up for the lost capacity on each train, Amtrak and MARC are developing a plan to add four trains each day -- two each in the morning and evening peak travel times. 

Other proposals include making greater use of the resources of the state  Transportation Department,  including  State Highway Administration workers, to respond to problems on the MARC lines. Other corrective actions include retraining of Amtrak crews and the earlier dispatch of MARC officials to the scene  of a breakdown.

Swaim-Staley and Wells are expected to meet with members of the MARC Riders Advisory Council in Washington this afternoon to discuss the report.

WERE YOU ON THE HELL TRAIN? If you're willing to be quoted in The Sun, please glance at the report and send your comments to with full name and hometown. Thank you. Please include phone  number for possible follow-up questions, though it will not be published.