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Monday, June 28, 2010

Private Fubars on the MARC

Sometimes I get my own private fubar from the MARC trains. Even when I miraculously escape the monster breakdowns by being on company travel or a day of annual leave, they have a special way of evening that score. After dodging the bullets of Monday and Tuesday at the end of June, where hundreds of my fellow commuters were stranded in the summer heat on a stalled evening train, I got my personal treatment.

The conductor stopped back at my end of Car 5 where I was sitting with the Gang and informed me that the elevator at BWI was broken and I would be unable to cross the tracks to get my car and go home. Unlike massive breakdowns of whole trains with 900 people who are left sweltering in their seats without HVAC or water, there is a Plan B for when I cannot get off at BWI like this.

First of all it is extremely rare that the evening train arrived at the southbound side of the station in the evening except now when that event is scheduled due to track and platform work on the other side of the station. For several weeks our evening trains have been using the Three Track every night and although a nuisance to about 400 who must climb the stairs to go over the tracks, they can do it. Because my wheelchair doesn’t do stairs going up very well, I had to invoke the Plan B that we have had up our sleeves for all of the 16 years that I have commuted on this train.

Plan B involves my staying on the train for three more stops until we get to Penn Station Baltimore then either getting the next MARC train back, the next Amtrak train back or as a third option, a taxi ride back. Any of those three possibilities consume a minimum of one extra hour getting home. It is an irritation but not one where life and limb are risked in the name of holding down a job.

The bigger irritation is that the BWI station has no provisions for an alternate means of crossing the tracks. This constituted the Vulnerable Geometry of which I write. They do have provisions for ambulatory passengers to board the center track from both platforms on wooden decks laid between the rails, however one cannot cross all three track at one location. One must walk down a few steps at the end of the platform to reach the single boarding location. Such boarding operations are accomplished with station crew assistance and at time when no trains are approaching the side track that is out of service at the times the center track is needed. Again it is only me (and any other wheelchair users who happen to be planning to ride that day) who get the screws put to him.

Add to that irritation that in all the years that MARC commuter trains have operated, the Halethorpe Station has not had platforms nor any way to cross the track other than a long climb up about 40 feet of stairs and down again. And I live 5 miles closer to Halethorpe than to BWI. With due respect to the planners, they are actually now building platforms and a cross over at Halethorpe that should be completed within my lifetime.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

So Where IS Plan B?

I have commuted between BWI Rail station and Union Station for 16 year. I've seen the best service and the worst service events in that time. Mechanical failures are inevitable. They are related to equipment age and funding issues. The bigger failures are always the ones that are compounded when company management fails to appreciate the gravity of the situations they allow to take place by their short-sighted responses and lack of timely information. There is no excuse for a poor or non-existent plan.

Several years ago, I was fortunate to not be commuting on the MARC Penn Line on the occasion of a mid-summer breakdown that lasted several hours. The train was stalled on the tracks between stations and a rescue locomotive was dispatched but the entire ordeal lasted the several hours in the afternoon heat that caused several passengers to experience medical emergencies. It was only my work travel schedule that had me elsewhere on that fateful day.

Stalled without power, the HVAC systems were not functioning and the interior temperatures of the bi-level cars climbed over 100 degrees. A lack of useful information and emergency planning by the MTA management and staff left passengers to fend for themselves. People in each can took it upon themselves to remove the emergency exit window panel in order to create some level of ventilation. Even with the windows out the stifling heat prompted some passengers to climb out on to the track bed to get away. Many walked over the berm and found their own way home at the end of a very bad ride.

After that incident, the MTA furnished promises that they would handle any future such events with more competent response. One of the plan elements was a supply of emergency bottled water. Fast forward to May 28, 2010. Again I was fortunate to be on company travel and not on the stalled train. The evening express train, 435, leaving Union Station experienced mechanical troubles just south of the New Carrollton station and was pushed back to DC for a different locomotive. That incident did get handles in an expedient manner and the passenger, though delayed and irritated, were not left stranded in dangerous heat conditions.

June 21, 2010, the 5:38 departure from Union Station with a full consignment of 900 passengers left the station only to become stranded by a stalled locomotive between stations. This time the braking systems became locked and the rescue locomotive could not move the train. These 900 passengers were stranded inside the aluminum cars once again. If one thinks that emergency water was available in June, that person would have been wrong. There were many opportunities for the management to load the water supplies aboard the train, but did not do it. There are several allocated cars on MARC Trains that are called Café Cars. In those cars there is a compartment large enough for many dozens water bottles. An interesting observation I made on June 23, is that there was a new nylon tie sealing the door of the Café compartment with the date 6-23-10 inscribed on it. I suspect that just maybe there is a supply of bottled water in there for the next time the train breaks down in the afternoon DC heat.