Did Baltimore avoid a life-endangering metro rail crisis through sheer luck?

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Without public notice, Governor Larry Hogan and the Maryland Department of Transportation/Maryland Transit Administration (MDOT/MTA) closed the entire Metro Subway line from Owings Mills to Johns Hopkins downtown on February 8, 2018, to make emergency track inspections.  Upwards of 40,000 riders experienced an infuriating disruption in their daily commutes on the next day.

Later, MTA explained in a Baltimore Sun article on February 11, that track wear conditions on the rails led to a decision to halt service completely for a month. On the first day of the next work week, Monday, February 12th, without signage and with only a few MTA “Ambassadors” to guide them, tardiness and absenteeism became the rule not the exception for riders who could only hope that assistance and explanations were on the way.  They were not. National Public Radio’s “Marketplace” captured riders’ frustration and deeper problems for another alarming national news story from Baltimore.

MDOT had another unwelcome surprise in store for commuters.  Before members of the General Assembly in Annapolis also on February 12th, Deputy Transportation Secretary James Ports testified that MDOT/MTA shut the system down as soon as they were aware of the track conditions only to be refuted by an article in the BaltimoreBrew.  The Brew article reported that in November 2016, an inspection team found that “17 sections of curved rail on the above-ground portion of the Metro exceeded the “gauge face angle” (GFA) standard of 26 degrees.  In Maryland, 26 degrees GFA establishes what is known as a “black condition.”  “Based on the MTA and Federal Transportation Administration (FTA) criteria,” according to the inspection report, “a black condition is where no train movement is allowed.” Track wear in black condition, i.e. exceeding 26 degrees, according to FTA and Maryland standards, invites train car derailments.

If we are concerned about costs to the taxpayer not only protection from life-threatening hazards, the Hogan administration has some “splaining” to do.  Where is the fiscal prudence in delaying track repairs until a February 2018 emergency rail system shutdown due to extensively documented black conditions on the tracks that were reported in November 2016?  Aren’t ridership safety and timely cost-effective repair and maintenance programs still the goals of inspection reports? Wouldn’t commuters on the Metro Subway line have encouraged the administration to make a $1.5 million track repair at public expense instead of a decision to make a casino-style gamble risking the immeasurable cost of life and limb?  An avoidable $3.7 million bill for $1.5 million in repairs and $2.2 million for late, unreliable, Lexus buses may have cost less than $1.0 million – if safety was as important as Hogan and his officials claimed and they had acted when they learned of the dangers.  Callous guesswork regarding public safety and amateurish misrepresentations by public officials are rarely prudent.  The public bears the risks and the costs.

Although exposed for their misleading testimony, MDOT/MTA officials made no apologies.  Instead, they claimed as reported in the Baltimore Sun on February 20, 2018, “MTA’s standard is stricter than other rail lines’”… “Some allow for angles of up to 30 or 32 degrees” implying thereby that other agencies also would not have made the repairs in November of 2016.  They were extremely negligent of the public’s safety and misrepresented what they knew and when they knew it – with impunity.

Additional fundamental questions have yet to be asked and answered.  For example, who decided that derailments possibly causing serious injuries or even fatalities among commuters, could be risked between November 2016 and February 2018 without warning from MDOT/MTA? What steps, if any, were taken when track wear in the black condition sections exceeded 25 degrees?  What happened in early 2018 to merit a sudden shut-down of the Metro line without notice that was even more dangerous than fourteen months of black conditions along the tracks since late 2016?

Why was the BaltimoreLINK launched on June 18, 2017, risking train derailment and possible loss of life without repair of known black conditions?  We can attribute that dangerous risk only to the Hogan administration.  He commissioned the inspection report and had been warned at least seven months in advance of the LINK launch.  The BaltimoreLINK and MetroLINK are still the under-performing, “transformational” consolation package tossed to Baltimore upon the cancellation of the Red Line light rail project.  We must demand full accountability.






One thought on “Did Baltimore avoid a life-endangering metro rail crisis through sheer luck?

  • June 1, 2018 at 12:36 PM

    Well said. But, good luck getting any answers to your questions.


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