Officials struggle to explain MARC train breakdown

Maryland Transit Administration and Amtrak officials struggled Tuesday to explain how they could have left a MARC train packed with nearly 1,000 commuters stranded north of Washington in sweltering heat for about two hours Monday night until frustrated passengers removed the windows and summoned paramedics.

But even as Amtrak President Joseph Boardman and MTA chief Ralign T. Wells delivered apologies to MARC riders, problems continued.

Amtrak, which owns the Penn Line and staffs the trains, reported a 24-minute power loss at Washington's Union Station, causing a delay to all its trains leaving the capital Tuesday evening. The MTA, meanwhile, reported that a MARC train on the Penn Line had developed a locomotive problem and was returning to Washington.

Furious passengers on the train that broke down Monday described a scene in which conductors failed to provide timely information and insisted on closing doors that provided the only relief from temperatures exceeding 100 degrees.

"They absolutely lost control of the situation," said Tim Kelly of Arbutus, a 10-year MARC rider who called the experience "the worst I've ever seen" on the commuter railroad.

Passenger Bill Rowe of Towson said he estimated the temperature in the car "conservatively" at 110 degrees. "Frankly, if someone left their dog locked up in a car for 11/2 hours like this, they would be arrested," he said.

Wells said he did not know why the breakdown occurred — and could not guarantee it wouldn't happen again. He said he spoke with Boardman Tuesday morning to express his concern about how the incident was handled.

Wells said the MTA, Amtrak and the Federal Railroad Administration will launch a formal investigation.

"I can guarantee you that a full review of all operations, communications and technical issues will begin immediately to identify the cause of this evening's problem and improve the response of both Amtrak and MARC in the future," Wells said.

Later Tuesday, Boardman released a statement apologizing for "unacceptable conditions and inconveniences."

"We take this matter very seriously and take responsibility for this failure," he said. "We will identify the cause or causes of yesterday's disruption, and we will take corrective action. We value our MARC passengers and we will take steps to improve the service."

In a statement posted online, Wells promised changes to address the problems that cropped up Monday. He said the MTA is considering providing a back-up locomotive on every Penn Line train and is reviewing policies for allowing passengers to leave a disabled train and for stocking bottled water on trains.

Wells said the eight-car Train 538, pulled by a 10-year-old HHP electric engine, broke down for undetermined reasons shortly after leaving Washington for Perryville. That left the cars without air conditioning in 90-degree temperatures.

"We don't know exactly why it failed," Wells said. It was not clear Tuesday, he said, whether the problem might have been with the power lines or the engine itself.

The train stopped just short of New Carrollton on the Penn Line.

MTA spokesman Terry Owens, passing on information he said he had been given by operations officials, initially said that train officials gave out water on some cars. "We carry water on trains in the summer, and if there is an issue we hand water out."

But several passengers said no water was distributed until emergency medical technicians — summoned when passengers called 911 on their cell phones — arrived almost two hours into the ordeal.

Owens said the accuracy of that information about water distribution is something that MARC is investigating.

Passenger Harry Kaplan of Owings Mills said he faults the conductors for their handling of the problem.

"To allow passengers to sit in a dangerously hot train for 11/2 hours with no air conditioning and keeping the doors closed is gross negligence bordering on criminal negligence," Kaplan said.

In an interview Tuesday, Wells said he too was not happy with the performance of the Amtrak conductors during the delay. "The conductors should have been keeping people informed," he said. "All indications are they have not met our expectations in communicating with our customers." Wells said the reaction of the crew would be part of the investigation.

After the breakdown, Amtrak brought up a diesel that was expected to get the train moving, Wells said. But a brake mechanism on Train 538 had tripped, making it impossible to move.

"Amtrak crews were optimistic they could get this thing going," the MTA chief said. "They may have let this go too long before they decided to come up with another plan."

Kelly said the last straw came when a conductor insisted she had to close the doors before a rescue train could be brought up. After another 10 minutes with the doors closed and no movement, passengers revolted.

"Nobody bought it. It's not true, it doesn't make sense," he said. ""That's when the windows started popping out."

Wells acknowledged that either passengers or crews had at some point taken out windows. "It wasn't busted out, but the glass was removed," he said.

Amtrak spokesman Steve Kulm said that in some cases the railroad's police officers ordered removal of the windows to improve air flow.

According to the Associated Press, Prince George's County Fire and EMS crews took two people to hospitals and treated others for heat-related problems.

Kate Walsh, an educator who lives in Catonsville and works in Washington, said all the passengers' clothes were soaked with sweat and the toilets were backed up with waste before she and others "escaped" the train.

"We staged a breakout. We broke through the door and we climbed down the locomotive," said the 53-year-old member of the state school board. "I do not do that lightly."

Once out of the train, Walsh found relief was not far away.

"We were 200 yards from a Metro [station]," she said. ""We didn't know until we escaped."

Passenger Cheryl Harris, a government worker who lives in Baltimore and commutes to Washington, said the incident occurred about 10 minutes after the train left Union Station in the capital. She said the train shut down and the air conditioning system went off, prompting law enforcement officials to enter the train and open some windows.

Harris said that when a relief train arrived, it was too small to accommodate all the passengers on the broken-down train. She said that among those left stranded outside the train were pregnant women and adults with children.

Rowe said that when he left the train, he saw five or six windows on another car pulled out "and people were hanging out of them."

"This situation turned into quite an emergency that really was badly handled by MARC," he said.

The MTA administrator said the relief train was able to pick up about 800 passengers but there was no room for 100 or more. Some of them made their way to New Carrollton, where they were picked up by another train. Some, like Rowe, found other ways home.

Harris said she didn't arrive home until 10:15 p.m. She decided to stay home Tuesday and telecommute.

"I don't even want to get back on the train," she said.

Tuesday evening, as the temperature soared again and Wells was traveling to Union Station to meet with MARC passengers, the problems were continuing. The MTA reported that its MARC Train 428 on the Penn Line had developed a locomotive problem and was returning to Washington.

Allison Gardner, a passenger from Baltimore, said she boarded three Penn Line trains only to be delayed each time by power failures or a broken-down train ahead. Last night she was on track to get to Penn Station an hour and a half late, but she hadn't been stranded.

"It could always be worse," she said.

Wells, who rode last night's Train 538 to Baltimore to talk with passengers, said one strategy the MTA is looking at for MARC is a plan to "pair up" locomotives so that trains aren't dependent on one engine. He said initial tests of such a system had been promising.

Owens, who was traveling with Wells aboard the train, said he was being well-received. "His apology is sincere and heartfelt," the spokesman said.