When the Maryland Transit Administration launched Baltimore’s light rail service in 1992, it was with the understanding that its railcars would need a midlife overhaul after about 15 years.

The recommended maintenance date came and went, and it wasn’t until 2013 that the MTA awarded a $150 million contract to multinational rail manufacturer Alstom to make the needed improvements on the fleet of more than 50 railcars.

Fast forward to 2023, and the work to overhaul the railcars continues even though many of them are up for full replacement based on industry standards.

At an emergency news conference late Thursday, the MTA announced it would suspend light rail service indefinitely, citing concerns about safety after an Oct. 21 fire on a nearly empty railcar. A high-voltage electrical conduit was punctured, causing an explosion that pierced the shell of the train and injured its lone passenger.

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The shutdown of the entire light rail system has disrupted the schedules of thousands of riders who rely on the north-south line that extends from Hunt Valley in Baltimore County south to Glen Burnie in Anne Arundel County through downtown Baltimore.

The suspension has also raised questions about why the state did not overhaul its older railcars sooner and whether there is a broader issue with the overhaul itself.

“This [service suspension] might be a particular, acute issue with this overhaul, but this is emblematic of these larger deferred maintenance issues,” said Eric Norton, director of policy and programs for the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance.

“The reason we are having this in the first place is because [the midlife overhaul] was deferred so long in the first place.”

As the state faces a $3.3 billion hole in funding its six-year transportation plan, some worry about what proposed deep cuts to state transportation spending will mean for a light rail system sorely in need of overhaul. MTA Administrator Holly Arnold said the proposed cuts wouldn’t affect the current light railcar rehabilitation work, but a summary document of the cuts explicitly states that the MTA will have to defer certain light rail rehab efforts.

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Arnold could not offer a timeline for when light rail service will be back up, but she said officials will resume limited service when eight railcars are available and full service once 19 are available.

“We’re taking action out of an abundance of caution, and in order to facilitate an expedited inspection and repair of the fleet,” said Arnold. She is seeking a federal grant to replace some light railcars, which range in age from 24 to 31 years old.

The agency pulled about 30 buses off their regular routes to run as shuttles between light rail stations Friday, but early-morning commuters still faced delays.

“Thousands of Baltimoreans depend on the light rail to get to and from work, school, doctor’s appointments and other crucial parts of life,” Mayor Brandon Scott said in a written statement.

“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,” the Democrat added.

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A screen grab of an MTA video shows smoke and fire on a light railcar in fall 2023.
A screenshot of an MTA video shows smoke and fire on a light railcar on Oct. 21. (Courtesy of the Maryland Transit Administration via WJZ)

Many transit advocates and public officials, including Scott and Gov. Wes Moore, have long blamed former Gov. Larry Hogan for the city’s transportation woes. Hogan, a Republican, scuttled the proposed Red Line project to connect East and West Baltimore; Moore, a Democrat, revived it.

“We’ve seen how our predecessors presided over transit lines that were late and over budget and unfinished,” Moore said this week.

Mike Ricci, a spokesman for Hogan’s administration, said in an emailed statement that it had “provided consistent and increased funding for the light rail vehicle overhaul project, including enabling federal funds through the bipartisan infrastructure law.”

“Playing the political blame game while controlling every last lever of state government won’t make the trains run on time, that’s for sure,” he said.

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Years late

The MTA’s shop crews regularly inspect all vehicles and make tweaks to get them back in service when issues arise. But Arnold suggested in a radio interview Friday that the problem went beyond routine maintenance.

“This is really related to the overhauls of the cars,” she said.

Alstom’s rehabilitation work —which includes car body repairs, a new propulsion system and better onboard climate controls — is meant to prolong the life of the railcars, generally accepted to be 30 years.

The overhaul is part of keeping the light rail system in what the industry calls a “state of good repair,” or safe, working order.

But Alstom, which said a decade ago it would build new light railcar components at its Hornell, New York, facility, hasn’t finished its work. It’s unclear if the mechanical issues that sidelined the light railcars were occurring on rehabbed cars.

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After the Oct. 21 fire, Alstom’s safety assessors told the MTA the risk to riders was at an “acceptable” level to continue commuter service, the agency said.

”We really thought that [the mechanical issue] was just related to that individual car,” Arnold told WYPR.

But another inspection over the weekend of Dec. 2 “invalidated the prior testing,” she said. “We discovered the issue was more prevalent than we previously thought.”

Arnold and her team decided to suspend service based on the electrical issue and a second mechanical problem related to the overhaul — an issue with the cables that connect railcars to one another, she said.

Meanwhile, Alstom’s work for other transit operators is under scrutiny. An October audit by Amtrak’s Office of Inspector General faulted Alstom for design flaws and failed computer testing of its high-speed railcars, which has delayed the launch of Amtrak’s new Northeast Corridor fleet for almost three years. Alstom has built only about half of the cars, according to the report.

Alstom also operates and maintains the MARC Train’s Camden and Brunswick lines, per a 2012 contract with the MTA. Maryland last spring signed off on a new, $401 million contract with Alstom to continue that work over a five-year period.

The first of Baltimore’s light railcars were slated for their midlife overhaul around 2007, 15 years after the system debuted and at the beginning of then-Gov. Martin O’Malley’s first term.

Funding and operations for Baltimore transit don’t happen at the local level — the MTA is a state agency under the purview of the state secretary of transportation, the lead for drafting Maryland’s transportation budget.

The budget is updated every year; officials always include funding estimates for five additional years.

Although the light rail “midlife overhaul” appears in state transportation budgets as far back as 2008, at a cost of $60 million over six years, the project didn’t begin until fiscal year 2014.

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Norton of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance pointed to a 2022 report authored by the state DOT that outlines a $1.8 billion state-of-good-repair backlog. The report said the agency would need an additional $3.3 billion over 10 years to bring each of its transit modes — including the light rail — up to standard.

The Baltimore Metro, the rapid transit line that runs from Owings Mills to the Johns Hopkins Hospital, led the backlog with $1.9 billion in needed funding. Light rail was fourth on the list, with an estimated need of $620 million to get to a state of good repair.

‘This is wrong for Baltimore’

That backlog — along with the budget cuts announced Tuesday — alarm transportation advocates.

Proposed cuts to capital funding would take the MTA below the minimum levels set by state lawmakers two years ago, over Hogan’s veto. Agencies such as the MTA would face a 30% budget cut for state-of-good-repair initiatives. Advocates worry that such cuts would undermine the long-term health of the region’s entire transit system.

State Sen. Cory McCray, who sponsored the legislation two years ago requiring a minimum investment in infrastructure improvements, said lawmakers “knew what was at stake” and felt that, if they didn’t mandate a minimum level of funding for improvements, maintenance issues would continue to pile up, resulting in situations like the light rail is now facing.

The Baltimore senator has been sharply critical of the Moore administration’s proposed transportation cuts. ”I screamed at the top of my lungs that this is wrong for Baltimore,” McCray said.

To McCray, the light rail suspension is a marker of the detrimental impacts the cuts will have for Baltimore.

”How do you say it louder?” he said.

Norton, whose organization helped McCray and other legislators craft that bill, said the law was designed to prevent these situations. It was largely driven by federal data that suggested Baltimore’s Metro, light rail and MARC commuter service all broke down more frequently than their counterparts across the country.

“We had a crisis at the time of a system that was failing riders at a rate that was one of the highest in the country,” Norton said.

The draft transportation budget that came out in October was the first to include a projected shortfall. Norton wonders if all the proposed cuts — normally not made so public — are intended to put pressure on the General Assembly to pass new funding measures.

In the meantime, Norton hopes the light rail comes back online as soon as possible. He had to leave work early Friday to pick up his daughter, who typically rides the light rail home from school. After 45 minutes, the shuttle bus still hadn’t arrived, she told him.

The Baltimore City Public School system said in a statement that the light rail shutdown had caused problems for students who take public transit.

“We are working with school leaders and MTA to work out alternative transportation solutions and support to ensure minimal disruption to our students’ access to education,” the statement said. The school system did not detail what those alternatives might be but said it will try to support students whose commutes have been delayed.

Banners reporter Liz Bowie and Lillian Reed contributed to this story.

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