When the single-car light rail train pulled into Mount Washington station about 3:30 p.m., it was so crowded that David Utley couldn't board it with his bicycle to get to his job at Penn Station. He decided to wait for the next train - which didn't come for another 50 minutes. And it was so overstuffed that Utley just gave up.
"Time for Plan B," he said as he wheeled his bike away from the station.
The Mount Washington man is one of thousands of light rail riders who have had their lives disrupted as the Maryland Transit Administration grapples with maintenance issues that have sidelined more than three-quarters of its rail cars at peak travel times.
The resulting delays and cattle-car conditions have outraged passengers and led some to question the system's safety and its managers' competence. MTA officials have had little advice to give light rail's roughly 26,000 daily passengers except to be patient.
MTA Administrator Paul J. Wiedefeld said yesterday that the agency is working around the clock to restore service to normal. But he said the MTA needed to cut back service after maintenance officials found a crack April 23 in a wheel of one car of an out-of-service train in the railyard. The discovery prompted the agency to increase its scheduled inspections of the equipment, taking many cars out of service.
"I understand the frustration of the customers, what they're experiencing, but I've got to make sure they're safe," he said.
The delays and crowding come as soaring gas prices are giving commuters extra incentive to consider public transit. MTA spokeswoman Cheron Wicker said the agency recognizes it is "an especially difficult" time to have service disruptions. Officials don't know if the problems are cutting into ridership, she said.
The crowding appeared to ease slightly yesterday morning as the MTA said it put 13 cars on the line - up one from the previous day. A 7:05 a.m. northbound train leaving from Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport had riders standing in the aisles of its single car after an influx at Patapsco station, but it still wasn't as packed as cars witnessed during the evening rush hours yesterday and Tuesday.
A two-car train heading north from downtown during yesterday's evening rush had some standing passengers after stopping at North Avenue but no shoulder-to-shoulder closeness. But a rider going south from Mount Washington had to endure a 30-minute wait and severe crowding all the way to North Avenue, where the train was stopped and passengers ordered off because of a police activity along Howard Street.
When the light rail is in full service, it uses 32 of its 53 cars and most trains are made up of two cars. At any time, at least 15 cars are in the maintenance shop, Wiedefeld said.
Fletcher Hamilton, director of light rail operations, said the MTA hopes to have 20 trains on the track within the next week to week and a half - restoring two-car trains to the main line. He said that would allow trains to run every 15 minutes at peak times on the core line between Timonium and Linthicum. Normally the light rail runs every 10 minutes at peak times and 20 minutes off-peak.
Fifteen-minute intervals would represent a significant improvement on performance Tuesday afternoon, when riders at Mount Washington waited as long as 50 minutes for a southbound train. When a one-car train arrived at 4:22 p.m., people filled every inch of the aisles and the stairwells in a manner similar to a Tokyo subway.
Shankia Little, a Western High School junior, described the conditions as "hot, sticky and stinky."
At the Cold Spring station the doors opened to a throng of students hoping to board. Some managed to squeeze into the spaces left by departing riders. But many more were left on the platform as MTA police cut off further boardings.
Crammed into the stairwell, Rodney Tatum described the conditions as "ludicrous, crazy."
"This is where our taxpayers' dollars go to - short trains?" he asked.
Some riders felt unsafe in the crowded conditions. "They could make a sudden stop and somebody could fall on me," said Ashley Wilson, a diminutive Western High student.
MTA officials said that while the crowding may be uncomfortable, it isn't dangerous. Ralign T. Wells, the MTA deputy administrator for operations, said rail transit vehicles are designed to operate with "crush loads" - a term that recent light rail riders will not need to have explained.
Casey Quinn, a regular rider headed south to Cromwell Station, said she walked several blocks north to the lightly used Centre Street station because of the crowds at both University Center and Lexington Market.
"When I tried to get on at University Center, I was almost trampled," she said.
While the crush was bringing people into closer contact than they might have preferred, many riders eased the discomfort with humor. Men cracked wise about losing their girlfriends in the crowd. A teenage girl drew laughs as she ragged on boys who were sitting as female passengers stood.
MTA officials are hoping they won't have to test riders' sense of humor much longer. Wiedefeld said the agency is bringing in outside engineers to review its work, sending extra MTA police officers to stations to control crowds and dispatching supervisors to prevent trains from bunching up. Next Monday, the MTA will begin running a bus shuttle between Cromwell and North Linthicum to supplement service by the less frequent trains.
But Wiedefeld said that inspections and maintenance work are difficult to hurry. "It's not just like changing a tire. It's quite a deal," Wiedefeld said. "We're not going to put anything out there that we are not totally confident is safe."
When the problems were first reported last week, the MTA issued a number of statements that have since been retracted. For instance, officials said problems were compounded by a mid-life overhaul of half the light rail fleet. And the agency said the crowding and delays were expected to last into late summer. Wiedefeld said yesterday that the overhaul had not yet begun. Other MTA officials said yesterday that they now believe the problems will be resolved well before late summer.
Wiedefeld said the MTA clearly needs to do a better job of communicating with customers.
"As we're working through this, we're trying to get it tighter," he said.
Sun reporter Stephen Kiehl contributed to this article.
Light rail in flux
Expect delays and overcrowding.
Light rail service is suspended between Penn Station and Mount Royal stops. A shuttle bus will operate on weekdays.
Beginning Monday, trains will operate every 15 minutes between Hunt Valley and Linthicum.
South of Linthicum, trains will alternate between Cromwell/Glen Burnie and BWI.
In addition to light rail service, MTA will provide rush-hour shuttle bus service between Cromwell Station, Ferndale and North Linthicum light rail stops.
For more information, go to www.mtamaryland.com