When the Maryland Transit Administration's light rail system opened in 1992, one of its big selling points was that it would deliver Orioles fans to and from Camden Yards with no need to leave games before they ended.
The trains, according to MTA policy, would continue to run for an hour after the game ended - no matter how late. It was a guarantee that resonated with Jeffrey Orner of York, Pa. On the day the light rail opened, he became the first rider to buy a ticket.
Last month, along with several hundred other Orioles victims - er, fans - Orner discovered just how rusty that ironclad promise has become after a game on the stormy night of Saturday, Aug. 25.
The game started two hours late after Mother Nature staged an unscheduled fireworks show. The Minnesota Twins clobbered the Orioles 8-1. Then the MTA hammered its customers.
Let's let Orner continue the play-by-play:
I was one of 200 people left stranded for an hour and a half after the Orioles game. ... After waiting 40 minutes on the northbound platform, a train shows up. However, the sign says "North Avenue." Most of the people needed to go to Timonium or Hunt Valley. The driver provided no answers.
A few minutes later another North Avenue train pulled in. Still no attempt to help us. While [the northbound train] was waiting, three southbound trains went through. Then one of us called 911. They said police were dispatched to the Camden Yards light rail station.
After 15 minutes no police showed up. I called again. Thirty minutes passed and still no police. Another train approached. We all ran back to the platform after scattering somewhat. Without regard to what was posted on the front sign, we all boarded the train with the intent not to get off until we reached our individual destinations. This driver called a supervisor and finally got permission to go all the way to Hunt Valley.
It is absolutely unconscionable that we had to go through this. It was not only frustrating, but dangerous. Some of us had long distances to travel. I think Reading, Pa., was the most distant. He probably got home at 4 a.m. MTA has permanently lost customers over this debacle.
Orner got home about 3 a.m. It put him in a letter-writing mood the next day.
I forwarded Orner's e-mail to Henry M. Kay, the MTA's assistant administrator for planning and engineering, and sought an explanation. It turned out that Kay was well aware of that night's debacle.
According to Kay, the MTA had made two contradictory promises that night. One was to its baseball-loving riders; the other was to a contractor who was scheduled to get access to the track to perform maintenance work. Apparently, the MTA did not explain to the contractor that its promise was conditioned on a timely conclusion to the Orioles' misery. So the contractor was out on the track, delaying three northbound trains that normally would have carried passengers past North Avenue.
"It was not the contractor. It was us," Kay said.
The incident prompted internal discussions of whether the MTA should back off its policy of keeping the trains running up to an hour after games, Kay said. But for now the agency plans to stick by its guarantee and to improve its communications with its contractors, he said.
Kay said the agency's managers tried to do their best under the circumstances but realize there was a breakdown that night.
"We apologize," he said. "Every one of these experiences is a learning thing."
COMMENT: Can't these government workers ever do anything right?
A few weeks ago I asked readers to recount their experiences with being stalled in a tunnel or on a major bridge. One of the replies, from Kim Sutter of Northeast Baltimore, straggled in a little late but is still worth sharing in an edited form. Her shining moment came this June in the Fort McHenry Tunnel late on a Saturday night.
Tired, thought I had enough gas, but lo and behold the fuel light had stopped working on my husband's 1994 Ford Explorer. I pulled into the right-hand lane, thinking that would be safer, put flashers on, called 911 and she connected me to [the Maryland Transportation Authority].
I told the dispatcher that every ounce of my gut was telling me to get out of car, but I would do whatever she said. She said no, stay in car!
No cars seemed to see me until they were right on my tail and would zip over. I am a pretty calm person, but this was hair-raising! Dispatcher was great - she stayed on phone with me, called my husband to let him know, was then able to shut down the right hand lane behind me.
After many minutes of gasping every time someone came right up on me, I could then tell the difference because cars were moving over more smoothly and not scaring me to death. She informed that the can of gas to get out of [the] tunnel was complimentary, which I appreciated but I would have gladly paid $500 for that gallon!
A man came up minutes later in an orange vest and told me if my car started to just GO ... don't stop and thank him. I did as he said. The dispatcher's manner helped me greatly to stay calm and IN THE CAR. I wanted to jump out so badly, but knew I had to listen to her counsel."
COMMENT: Give these government workers a break. When they do get it right, it can save your life.
Find Michael Dresser's column archive at baltimoresun.com/dresser