The Maryland Transit Administration announced Thursday that it was indefinitely suspending light rail service on its north-south line starting Friday, citing recent mechanical issues that necessitate inspection of the entire fleet of 53 rail cars.

The agency will begin shuttle bus service at all light rail stations starting Friday, pulling about 30 buses off their regular routes to fill the gap. MTA Administrator Holly Arnold acknowledged at an emergency news conference Thursday evening that this could have a ripple effect on service levels for other bus lines, and she said members of her team are doing everything they can to fix the light rail fleet quickly.

“This is a critical transit service, and this is not a decision that we’ve taken lightly,” Arnold said. “We understand what a significant impact this will have, and we’re going to work to mitigate those impacts where possible. The safety of our riders is paramount and we must act with that in mind.”

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

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A recent maintenance inspection following an Oct. 21 fire event revealed punctures in high voltage conduits that connect rail cars to their power source, Arnold said. Vehicle overhaul contractor Alstom assisted the agency in conducting a risk assessment, and initially determined the issue did not require a full suspension of service.

“While the risk level remains acceptable, we’re taking action out of an abundance of caution, and in order to facilitate an expedited inspection and repair of the fleet,” Arnold said.

Inspectors found a second mechanical issue with the cables that connect rail cars to one another, which Arnold said caused multiple smoke events over the past two years. A risk assessment for this issue similarly did not necessitate full suspension on its own.

MTA Administrator Holly Arnold and other officials announce that light rail service will be suspended effective Friday, Dec. 8, 2023. Arnold cited serious mechanical issues with rail cars and could not provide a timeline for resuming service. (Daniel Zawodny)

The MTA is behind schedule on an overhaul of its light rail fleet, which began operation in the early 1990s. The overhaul includes major maintenance that should have begun after rail cars had been in service for 15 years.

Alstom was awarded a $150 million contract in 2013 to begin the work. The company has also worked with Amtrak to overhaul the rail cars for its high-speed Acela train since 2014, but getting those new and rebuilt cars in service has been delayed, in part by build defects.

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The MTA’s move comes as seasonal activities get underway and area residents prepare for holiday travel. Many Ravens fans use light rail to get to football games. Express buses from the Glen Burnie/Cromwell stop and the Timonium Fairgrounds stop will run directly to M&T Bank Stadium this Sunday in time for fans to watch the Ravens take on the Los Angeles Rams at 1 pm.

Maryland state Sen. Cory McCray called the suspension “unacceptable to Marylanders” in a statement, and expressed frustration with it coming just days after the state Department of Transportation proposed $3.3 billion in budget cuts over the next six years. “This news further exacerbates the fact that we need to invest more in our public transit system due to failing infrastructure instead of taking away from it,” he said.

Eric Norton, director of policy and programs for the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, also lamented the suspension. He said that the state’s lack of adequate funding toward “state of good repair” — keeping vehicles, railways and other transit infrastructure in good working order — ultimately hurts riders with continued service disruptions.

“The Governor’s recently proposed cuts to the MTA’s budget would take us back to the old habit of underfunding state of good repair and lead to more shutdowns and disruptions,” Norton said. “Instead, we should have sustained an adequate funding for basic needs, including the full replacement of MTA light rail vehicles.”

The light rail line, which runs from Hunt Valley in Baltimore County south to Glen Burnie in Anne Arundel County through downtown, has been mired by service disruptions over the years, both from major pandemic-related cuts and day-to-day disruptions to downed tree limbs and power lines.

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Light rail ridership has rebounded slowly since the onset of the pandemic. In 2019, the service logged just shy of 548,000 monthly riders. So far in 2023, the monthly average is just over 287,000.

Officials announced proposed cuts to the state’s transportation budget earlier this week, but said that operations for “core service” on Baltimore’s transit lines would not be affected. Arnold said budget cuts won’t affect the planned-but-delayed overhaul of light rail cars, which range from 24 to 31 years old. The complete replacement of the fleet with brand new rail cars, however, could be delayed.

MARC train service, which offers commuter rail service on three lines, will not be affected by the suspension of MTA light rail service.

Baltimore’s Metro subway, which is separate from the light rail, has consistently experienced more major mechanical failures year-over-year than most other heavy rail systems in the United States, according to federal data. The MTA recently acquired the first of 78 new Metro rail cars that will replace its original 100 over the next several years. That overhaul, too, could be slowed by the recently announced budget cuts.

In the Washington, D.C., area, a 2021 train derailment on Metro’s Blue Line left that system with only around 40% of its fleet in operation. Ridership levels for that subway system have also not recovered from pre-pandemic levels.

Banner reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this story.

Daniel Zawodny covers transportation for the The Baltimore Banner as a corps member with Report For America. He is a Baltimore area native and graduated with his master's degree in journalism from American University in 2021. He is bilingual in English and Spanish and previously covered immigration issues. 

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