Effective 12:01 a.m. on Dec. 8, the Maryland Department of Transportation – Maryland Transit Administration (MDOT MTA) has temporarily suspended Light Rail service at all stops to perform emergency inspections of every vehicle in the fleet.
According to multiple news reports, there are two mechanical issues that are causes of concern.
During a recent inspection following an Oct. 21, 2023, fire, MTA discovered the potential for a punctured conduit on its light vail vehicles. “Out of an abundance of caution and to ensure continued passenger safety and system reliability,” the agency, in conjunction with its vehicle overhaul contractor, says it will “initiate an accelerated inspection and correction plan.”
According to a safety risk assessment conducted on behalf of MTA and Alstom, which was contracted in 2013 to do an overhaul on the MTA Light Rail vehicle fleet, that problem was identified a “medium risk,” which means that it requires mitigation but is deemed safe enough for operation, WYPR reported.
According to a CBS News report, officials say 53 Light Rail cars are impacted, and they range from 21 to 34 years old. Limited service will be restored once at least eight railcars are available, with full service planned to return once all repairs are complete.
“The second issue is related to the piece of machinery that connects the two sections of our Light Rail cars called the ‘inter-car connector cable, which has caused six smoke events between November 2021 and November 2023, including three in the past four months,” said Maryland Transit Administrator Holly Arnold, according to the WYPR report.
Additional inspections, WYPR reports, revealed that the problems were much more “systemic” than officials originally believed although as of yet, it is unclear how the problems became so widespread.
According to the WYPR report, Arnold said the decision is “completely unrelated to the budget cut announcements made by the state’s transportation department earlier this week.” The repairs and inspections will be covered under the $130 million light-rail overhaul that is currently under way with Alstom, said the administrator.
“Ensuring the safety of passengers is our top priority,” said Arnold. “We understand that these service impacts will be a significant inconvenience to many, and we appreciate the patience and understanding of our riders as we conduct these essential inspections and repairs.”
Shuttle bus service will be implemented at all Light Rail stops, which means “other bus routes may also be impacted by delays,” according to a WMAR 2 News report.
Arnold said because of limited resources, “they’ll have to pull drivers and buses from existing routes. Buses will be considerably slower than the normal Light Rail—it takes about two hours to get from end to end on a bus—but they will try to stay true to the original schedule,” Arnold told reporters.
“We’ve been in touch with the Moore Administration about this issue and have been working to identify workaround solutions for residents who rely on Light Rail—especially in Baltimore’s historically underserved communities—and ensure Light Rail services resume in a timely manner,” Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott said in a Thursday evening statement, according to a WMAR 2 News report.
“Thousands of Baltimoreans depend on the Light Rail to get to and from work, school, doctor’s appointments, and other crucial parts of life. A prolonged suspension of services is simply unacceptable, and we will be doing everything in our power to ensure MTA addresses the necessary repairs as quickly as possible,” Scott added.
According to the WMAR 2 News report, the Light Rail has a daily ridership of about 10,000 people, Arnold said. The shutdown “will mark a considerable hit to a service already struggling to recover from pre-pandemic ridership—55% of what it was before Covid.”
On Dec. 14, MTA launched a new webpage to keep customers updated on the repairs and progress made on the Light Rail system.
According to the agency, the team was “taking advantage of the railcar outage to complete necessary track work,” said Arnold in a Dec. 14 social media post. “We’ve advanced several projects to avoid future disruptions,” she said.
UPDATE: Partial Service Resumes
As of Saturday, Dec. 23, Light Rail service resumed following recent inspections that identified potential issues with punctured conduits on vehicles. MTA worked closely with its contractor to complete an accelerated inspection and correction plan.
“I thank our dedicated Maryland Transit Administration employees and our contractor’s workforce for all they’ve done to advance these reviews while maintaining safety as our highest priority,” said Maryland Transportation Secretary Paul J. Wiedefeld. “Above all, I thank the thousands of riders who rely on our services every day. I know this temporary suspension of service has been an inconvenience for many of our customers, and I greatly appreciate their understanding.”
MTA inspected every light rail vehicle for electrical conduit damage. Any damaged cables were repaired or replaced and intercar connectors were also replaced on all vehicles. A “repair” status indicated damage was found in one or more conduits and the cables needed to be repaired or replaced. A “completed” status indicates that repairs were made and the train received a safety assurance certification with concurrence from the SSOA (State Safety Oversight Agency). The table found here will continue to be updated with the latest information on each vehicle.
With Light Rail service resuming on Saturday, shuttle buses that have operated between light rail stations will no longer be in operation. As Light Rail transitions back to full service, some travel delays may occur. For additional information and real time updates, visit the MTA website or use the Transit App to track light rail arrivals and departures. As a courtesy to riders, Light Rail service will be free until January 2, 2024.
“We’re thrilled to welcome our valued riders back aboard light rail,” said Arnold. “Safety will always be our top priority, and I thank our riders for their patience as we completed necessary inspections and repairs.”
Additionally, MTA has applied for $225 million in federal grant opportunities to support further investment in the Light Rail system. The Rail Vehicle Replacement grant program would directly support the procurement of an entirely new fleet of modern light rail vehicles.