Commuter lines point finger at CSX : LUSENET : TB2K spinoff uncensored : One Thread

Tuesday, May 2, 2000

Story last updated at 12:21 a.m. on Tuesday, May 2, 2000

Commuter lines point finger at CSX Officials say Friday outage could have been avoided

By Mark Gordon Times-Union business writer

A pair of commuter railroads especially hard-hit by Friday's temporary shutdown of CSX Transportation's rail system say the Jacksonville-based company must improve its service.

The problem centered around a software breakdown that hindered communications between trains and the Jacksonville dispatch center early Friday morning, just as commuters in Maryland and Virginia began shuffling into Washington, D.C.

At least 13 trains going south from the Maryland suburbs during the morning rush hour were canceled; travelers heading north from Virginia were delayed by almost two hours.

After the glitch, CSX officials blamed MCI WorldCom, the company's communications provider, for the problems. A railroad spokesman said an internal software glitch at MCI WorldCom's Jacksonville office, and the snowballing effect that followed, was out of CSX's control.

But the commuter rail lines that send hundreds of thousands of people a day into the nation's capital are blaming CSX.

"When the control system in Jacksonville goes down, everyone goes down, and that is a serous problem," Virginia Railway Express spokesman Matt Benka said yesterday. "They must re-look at the way they do their business."

Benka and officials at MARC (Maryland Area Rail Commuter) Train Service in Maryland said the railroad needs to consider building a second dispatch system, so a problem like Friday's -- the third temporary shutdown in the past 11 months -- is not as widespread if something similar happens again. Rail service across the country was affected last summer after a lightning bolt knocked out communications and again in September when Hurricane Floyd forced an evacuation of the dispatch center on the Westside.

"Whatever the source of the problem, the bottom line is that our customers do not have the service they deserve," Maryland Secretary of Transportation John Porcari said yesterday. "We have been very disappointed with the service provided by CSX."

CSX and MARC are in the process of working out a new contract; the last one expired in December. MARC can't cancel its contract, short of shutting down its popular rail system. The contract addresses issues such as maintenance, safety and who pays the costs.

The software problem was discovered around 4:30 a.m. Friday. By 11 a.m., all the trains were moving again. CSX officials said automatic controls that guide train crews on when to stop, start and slow down were not working. Voice and data systems also were not working, although a few crew members were able to communicate with each other by hand-held radios.

CSX spokesman Robert Gould said the railroad sympathizes with commuters and the agencies that provide the commuter service -- in which on-time service has constantly been a hot issue. CSX has been looking into the idea of decentralizing the Jacksonville dispatch center, Gould said, a job that could prove to be tedious and time consuming.

Gould, who himself commutes daily on the MARC system to his Washington, D.C., office, said that accusations of not having a backup system are false. Gould said there are several contingency plans, if and when the breakdown is a caused by CSX -- something he said hasn't happened over the past year.

"We were the victim here," Gould said. "I don't think this can be counted as our failure. Our supplier failed us."

CSXT spokeswoman Kathy Burns said trains were affected all over the railroad's 23,000-mile rail network, not just the ones riding the congested tracks outside Washington. Still, the problems and complaints from customers come at a contentious time for the railroad that employs more than 4,000 people in Jacksonville.

In January, about 300 freight customers met in Philadelphia to protest the lack of quality service provided by the railroad after it bought 42 percent of Conrail. CSX took over the railroad June 1, and the shipping problems were only the beginning of what could be considered the most difficult year in the history of the company: Shares have been mired in a 10-month slump, earnings have come in below Wall Street analysts' predictions, and CSX Corp. Chairman and Chief Executive Officer John Snow appointed himself president last month after three senior executives suddenly quit.

In between the customer complaints and the management maneuvering, CSX dealt with an investigation into the safety and maintenance of its tracks by the Federal Railroad Administration. The railroad settled the accusations with the agency last month.

-- - (x@xxx.cQm), May 02, 2000


If this effected government workers in Washington D.C., did anyone miss them when they didn't show for work? I'll bet not.

-- Richard (, May 02, 2000.

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