The rail car that experienced an electrical fire recently, triggering the suspension of Baltimore’s entire light rail line last week, had received a scheduled rehabilitation prior to the incident, Maryland’s top transit official said Tuesday.
Holly Arnold, the administrator of the Maryland Transit Administration, said the rail car flagged for safety reasons was among 49 that had gotten a so-called “midlife overhaul.”
Arnold’s team pulled the entire fleet for inspection after an investigation into the Oct. 21 fire event revealed problems in the electrical system of the car in question. It’s unclear how many other rail cars, if any, of the 49 in service before Friday’s suspension have the same mechanical issue or other problems that have been identified through the ongoing inspections of rehabbed cars.
The rail cars on the 31-year-old, north-south line were overdue for a midlife overhaul when the MTA in 2013 hired Alstom Transportation Inc. to perform the major rehabilitation over five years. The project was meant to ensure the light rail fleet’s safety and reliability over its expected 30-year lifespan.
But state spending board records indicated the contractor hired to perform the required maintenance experienced persistent and long-running obstacles in completing the work, causing the state to extend the $156 million contract eight times in the last five years.
One such document listed numerous reasons for project delays, including “limited engineering resources, high turnaround with key positions, protracted negotiations with suppliers, late delivery of components and materials, excessive turnaround times for design reviews and document approvals, and several changes on design activities creating a cumulative impact.”
Plant shutdowns and supply chain backups experienced during the pandemic were also blamed and continue to impact the project, according to state documents.
“We’ve had a number of kind of fits and starts and delays from the Alstom side, that they didn’t move as fast as we thought that they were going to move throughout the entire process” both in design and construction, Arnold said in a phone interview with The Baltimore Banner on Tuesday afternoon. “We’ve been continuing to push on them to move forward and move forward as quickly as possible.”
She said the multinational rail manufacturer has been “incredibly responsive” in working with her agency, and that both entities are moving “full-steam ahead with inspections.” Alstom sent additional crews to the Baltimore area Monday, and senior company officials have been on-site to meet with MTA officials.A company representative said in an emailed statement, “Alstom has communicated with MDOT’s MTA at each step along the way when schedule adjustments were needed on the light rail vehicle overhaul project.” The company said it was “committed to completing the work in a timely fashion.”
Alstom said some of the delays were due to “challenges outside of our control, including ones that arose from a global pandemic and supply chain disruptions.”
“During the course of this contract Alstom has made several concessions to the MTA, providing additional spare parts and training to help ensure the smooth transition of the day-to-day maintenance of overhauled vehicles back to MTA staff,” the company representative said in a statement. “We are also collaborating closely with the MTA to address the recent issues and doing everything we can to support a rapid and safe return to service for the Light Rail vehicles for our customers at MTA and the residents of the greater Baltimore area.”
Alstom still has four rail cars awaiting rehabilitation in its New York facility.
The first of Baltimore’s light rail cars 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. The original contract was awarded during O’Malley’s second term, with work — and extensions — occurring during the two terms of his successor, Larry Hogan.
The Board of Public Works approved all eight contract extensions.
The original 2013 contract was extended — at no additional cost — once in 2018 when the original anticipated five-year timeline was reached, four times in 2019, and twice in 2020. A state document outlining an April 2020 extension said that “conditional acceptance” had been given to just 21 rail cars at that time.
A document outlining the next and most recent extension, in June 2022, states that 32 vehicles had been conditionally accepted at the time.
Arnold explained that conditional acceptance comes after rail cars pass tests for major structural issues at the company’s New York facility, where MTA inspectors have been present throughout the entire process.
“We do some initial testing, and then we say, ‘Yes, conditionally these are good to go in service,’” Arnold explained.
Smaller details generally can’t get worked out until the rail cars are back in Maryland for field modifications. These are things like issues with software, train doors and passenger counters, which Arnold said they are also still working through.
“Final acceptance of any rail car can’t happen until these [smaller] problems are worked out,” she said.
So the rail cars brought back for service from Alstom’s New York facility — including the car in which a high-voltage electrical conduit was punctured on Oct. 21, causing a small electrical fire that pierced the shell of the train and injured its lone passenger — had received conditional approval to go back into service.
Last week, when Arnold announced the light rail service suspension, she emphasized that a safety risk assessment completed by Alstom in accordance with federal guidelines after the incident determined that service could continue safely while mitigations efforts continued.
Arnold said state officials, though, decided to suspend service “out of an abundance of caution.”
The most recent rail car overhaul contract extension, from 2022, also gave MTA discretion over a one-year renewal option that could potentially take the project through 2025.
The light rail cars range in age from 24 to 31 years old, meaning they have reached or are approaching the end of their useful lives. Arnold said that while her team is focused on getting the overhauled cars cleared for service once again, full car replacement is coming. She said she is applying for a federal grant to replace some light rail cars.
“I’ve been pretty clear over the past couple of years that we need to begin that process now, and we’re working on an RFP [request for proposal] now,” Arnold said. “We’re applying for federal funding this month to start that replacement process. That said, it takes a while, like purchasing vehicles is a long process, and so we have to start now and keep the vehicles going while we’re doing that.”
Earlier this year, the MTA received the first of 78 new Hitachi heavy rail cars for the Baltimore Metro subway that connects Owings Mills to Johns Hopkins Hospital. Six new rail cars will enter service next year, roughly 41 years after the city’s lone heavy rail line debuted.
State transportation budgets indicate that the midlife overhaul for the original Metro fleet of 100 heavy rail cars occurred between 2002 and 2006, roughly five years after they had reached their midlife point.
As for when light rail service might resume, Arnold declined to speculate Tuesday. She has said officials will resume limited service when eight rail cars are available and full service once 19 are available. The agency has been relying on shuttle buses to serve light rail riders since Friday.
Arnold said on X on Tuesday afternoon: “Our teams are working hard to complete a full inspection of our Light Rail vehicles to get service back as quickly as is safe.”
Daniel Zawodny covers transportation for The Baltimore Banner as a corps member with Report For America, a national service organization that places emerging journalists with local newsrooms that cover underreported issues.