Chesterton Tribune



NITCD board grills staff on January 12 stranded train

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The Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District’s Board of Trustees was adamant about one thing at its meeting Friday morning: that the South Shore’s lines of communication were tested and found seriously wanting on Jan. 12, when a flash-freeze stranded some 400 South Shore passengers on an early-morning train for five hours and left thousands more unable to get to work.

General Manager Michael Noland concurred with that assessment and told the board that NICTD is working hard right now not only to improve its communications capability but to ensure a similar incident never happens again.

As the Chesterton Tribune reported at the time, shortly before 6 a.m. on Thursday, Jan. 12, rapidly falling temperatures caused a light rain to flash-freeze, with the result that ice began accumulating on the overhead concatenary wire in East Chicago as well as on Train 104’s pantagraph, the spring-loaded mechanism which makes contact with the concatenary and conducts electricity to the engine. Once the weight of the ice exceeded the pantagraph’s 20 pounds of uplift, contact with the concatenary was lost and the train was rendered powerless.

Passengers aboard Train 104 were at that point transferred to the next westbound train of the day, Train 6--the Sunrise Express--which duly departed East Chicago. The same thing happened to Train 104/6, however, and at a remote area of single-track territory west of Hegewisch it too lost power. And there it sat for some three hours.

The incident, Noland told the board on Friday, is “nearly unprecedented. Some things we did well. Some things we did not do well. There are some things we need to improve on.”

Trustee Mark Repay, representing Lake County, asked Noland how long the South Shore typically waits before offloading stranded passengers.

In this particular case, Noland replied, it simply wasn’t safe to do so. Train 104/6 was stopped “on an embankment that was a sheet of ice,” he said. “Offloading passengers wasn’t an option.”

That may have been the case, Trustee Mark Yagelski, representing LaPorte County, indicated. But the passengers themselves felt that “there was no good explanation why they couldn’t get off.”

“I do appreciate the fact that there are Mother Nature issues,” Repay continued. “It seems like it would be a good idea to have something on paper,” explaining the incident in full detail for passengers.

Noland--who on the night of Jan. 12 did issue a lengthy apology to passengers--agreed with Repay that such a document would be appropriate. “We can put together a summary of the lessons learned and actions planned,” he said.

Trustee Christine Cid, representing Lake County, noted that many of the passengers who had to de-train at East Chicago “didn’t know what to do or where to go” and wondered whether NICTD should have arranged buses.

“Ninety-nine percent of the time, by the time you’ve called the buses out, the problem has been resolved,” Noland said. “And busing 5,000 people isn’t practical. But we’re going to re-examine the possibilities for busing. And we’re going to post public bus schedules in the stations.”

Yagelski suggested that, with 400 folks stuck on a train for five hours, some attempt might have been made to get them coffee or hot chocolate.

In fact, Noland said, NICTD’s “go-team” did get water to the people on Train 104/6. And those passengers were later issued a voucher for a free one-way ride.

Perhaps NICTD could’ve done better than a single one-way ride, Yagelski said, possibly something on the order of a free one-month pass.

Noland replied that most commuter railroads in the country wouldn’t have done even that much.

Trustee Jim Biggs, representing Porter County, agreed with Yagelski. “They paid to get to work that day,” he said. “And they didn’t get to work. Three to five hours stuck on a train. That is unacceptable and we can’t let it happen again.”

Noland did detail the actions that NICTD is taking in the aftermath of the incident:

* Folks registered to receive e-mail alerts from NICTD got those in a timely manner on Jan. 12, he said. Those registered to receive text alerts did not. That’s because the texts were “getting jammed up in the system. They weren’t getting released. Then folks would get an overflow of messages two hours late.” The solution to that problem is to get folks “to migrate to email alerts,” Noland said. “Texting is very limited. We’re shifting to e-mail and eliminating texting.”

* NICTD is also investigating de-icing technology, including heated pantagraphs and ice-cutting pantagraphs, Noland said.

* And NICTD plans to acquire another diesel locomotive to provide power when there’s disruption in electrical service, Noland added.



Posted 1/30/2017





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