Light rail riders have been getting to know each other a little more intimately over the past week as increased safety inspections have forced officials to run one-car, standing-room-only trains at rush hour and other times.
Jawauna Greene, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Transit Administration, said yesterday that the agency has had to step up its inspections of its 53 light rail cars after a wheel on one cracked about a month ago.
The MTA sent out an advisory late yesterday warning customers of possible delays and crowding as the light rail system operates with fewer cars than usual.
The notice was almost a week too late for some customers, who said they have been noticing crowding on single-car trains since Tuesday. The light rail service generally operates two cars per train.
"At Lutherville, it's standing room only," said Will Lynch, who boards the train there to commute to his job near Lexington Market. "It's very civil, but it's full. People are standing in the step wells. Everybody's crowded."
Brian Sullam, who boards the light rail two stops down the line at Mount Washington to commute to University Center, said the crowded trains have led to pushing and shoving at the busy Lexington Market station. He said people in the aisles get panicked that they won't be able to get off at their stop.
"This is the kind of crowds you don't see on the light rail, so people are not very good at handling it," said Sullam, a former Sun reporter.
Greene said that contrary to Sullam's impression, only some of the rush-hour light rail trains have been operating with one car.
The spokeswoman said the agency has tried to conduct the inspections with minimal disruption, but has decided to free up some additional cars by temporarily suspending service on its Red Line, which runs between Penn Station and Camden Station.
She also said that a "bus bridge" would replace service on the spur that connects Mount Royal Station on the main line with Penn Station.
Greene said the problem came to light when a wheel on a train car that was not in service cracked in a rail yard. She said the incident raised concerns because it was a relatively new car in which a malfunction would not be expected.
The spokeswoman said that under federal rules, the MTA is required to inspect the rest of the fleet. She said most of the cars the MTA has inspected have turned up no defects with the wheel assemblies but that "one or two additional problems" had been found.
It could take until late summer to complete the remaining inspections, which are occurring at a time when much of the light rail fleet is out of service for an overhaul.
Green said the MTA will offer substitute bus service if it needs to check other sectors of the line.
Customers were as upset by the lack of notice of the service disruptions as they were by the problems themselves. Sullam said he saw no notifications of expected problems at stations and had receive no advisories through the e-mail service he had signed up for.
"It just seem they could be a little more customer-oriented," he said.
Sullam and Lynch said that before this week, they had generally been satisfied with the light rail.
"The service is usually fantastic," said Lynch. "I'm a great fan of the light rail."
But the talk of a bus bridge brought little comfort. Lynch recalled that when service on the northern half of the line was suspended several years ago for double-tracking while a second set of rails was built, the bus that replaced it increased his travel time from a half-hour to an hour.
"I ended up buying a car. It was just too much. It was driving me nuts," Lynch said.