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Amtrak criticized for Main Line fires

A series of Main Line fires - including a serious house blaze - caused by a malfunctioning Amtrak locomotive has alarmed Lower Merion residents who live near the busy tracks.

Richard Juliani at his fence in Wynnewood, which was charred by a fire started by a passing locomotive. (Akira Suwa / Staff Photograppher)
Richard Juliani at his fence in Wynnewood, which was charred by a fire started by a passing locomotive. (Akira Suwa / Staff Photograppher)Read more

A series of Main Line fires - including a serious house blaze - caused by a malfunctioning Amtrak locomotive has alarmed Lower Merion residents who live near the busy tracks.

And they're worried about Amtrak's response to the April fires. Amtrak dispatchers initially refused firefighters' requests to halt the malfunctioning train or to stop other trains to give firefighters better access to battle the fires, Lower Merion Fire Chief Charles McGarvey said.

"I'm certain it probably will happen again," said Caroline Cuthbert, who lives on Hathaway Lane in Wynnewood, where one house was seriously damaged and other homeowners lost fences and trees to the rapidly spreading flames. "We've had other fires before . . . and I'm certainly concerned. Once one house starts to burn, it's only a matter of time before others can catch fire, too."

Susan Guttentag, who lives with her husband and children in the Hathaway Lane house that was set ablaze, said she was especially concerned about the uncontrolled growth of flammable brush along the tracks.

"It's habitually been a problem that bamboo has been allowed to run rampant on the Amtrak property, and Amtrak doesn't do a whole lot to clear the bamboo from their property," Guttentag said. "It was the brush that caught fire."

The fire caused about $500,000 damage to the Guttentags' house and contents, destroying most of the roof, gutting the third floor, and resulting in water damage to much of the lower floors, she said.

Four fires started

At least four fires in Lower Merion were started around 8:40 p.m. April 28 by a locomotive on a westbound 16-car Amtrak ballast train that carried stone used in railbed repairs.

The train was powered by two diesel locomotives. The second one - a 40-year-old engine - shot sparks high into the air from its exhaust stack.

"Sparks were spewing out of the back of the first car or the top of the second car. . . . It was like they were falling out of the engine. It looked like a giant sparkler," said Jacqueline Scharff, who watched from her backyard patio as the train passed slowly.

Cuthbert, who saw the train as she was leaving an Ardmore restaurant, said, "It looked like a Fourth of July display. Sparks were shooting 20 or 30 feet in the air. It was spectacular."

The sparks ignited brush along the tracks, which run from Philadelphia through the leafy Main Line suburbs and on to Harrisburg. One fire also started just west of the Ardmore station.

Richard Juliani, who lives next to the fire-damaged house and saw 25-foot-high flames licking at the newly remodeled top floor of his house, said, "It seems like criminal negligence, sending out that vehicle like that. What if this had happened late at night? It could have been so much worse."

Lack of cooperation

As fire companies scrambled to respond to reports of blazes springing up along the line, "we did not receive the cooperation we needed from Amtrak," McGarvey said.

An Amtrak dispatcher at 30th Street Station said he would only slow trains down, not stop them, McGarvey said, and that if firefighters went onto Amtrak property, "we'd be trespassing."

Trains continued to pass through the fire zone until firefighters placed flares on the tracks to stop the trains about 9:15 p.m., nearly a half-hour after the first fire call at 8:47, McGarvey said.

Amtrak officials blamed a "miscommunication" between the dispatcher and the fire chief. Karina Romero, a spokeswoman in Washington for Amtrak, said the dispatcher was "asking them to await Amtrak supervisors on the scene" for their own safety because of overhead electrical lines.

"I think he [McGarvey] took that to mean [the dispatcher] wasn't going to stop traffic," Romero said.

Not so, said McGarvey.

Still waiting

"I guess if I was Amtrak, I'd be saying it was miscommunication, too," the fire chief said. "We stopped the traffic ourselves. And as far as a supervisor coming, I'm still waiting for him to show up."

Amtrak dispatchers did stop traffic from 9:15 until 10:30, when trains were allowed to proceed with restrictions between Bryn Mawr and Wynnewood, Romero said. Normal service resumed at 11:47, she said.

Embers from the brush fires along the tracks blew onto the Guttentags' shake-shingle roof in the 300 block of Hathaway Lane, starting the fire that seriously damaged the three-story Tudor home.

McGarvey said it was impossible to know whether passing trains contributed to the spread of the flames from the brush to the house.

The cause of sparks from the locomotive was apparently carbon buildup in the diesel engine, Amtrak's Romero said.

The engineer of the ballast train reported to Amtrak at 8:51 p.m. that he had shut down the old GP38 locomotive because of sparks coming from the stack. The train continued west, powered by the other locomotive.

Train-caused fires used to be more frequent along railroad tracks in the days of coal-fired steam locomotives, and even after the advent of diesel locomotives. Better maintenance and spark arresters have helped reduce the danger, rail experts say.

But the residents of Hathaway Lane are familiar enough with the recurring hazard to worry about it. "We've lived here 32 years, and we've had very large fires in our yard over the years," Scharff said.

"When we first moved here, it was like a forest back there, with bamboo, and tulip and poplar trees," she said. When a train-caused fire erupted, "our backyard went up like a book of matches."

About 15 years ago, Cuthbert said, a train started a chain of about 30 fires up and down the tracks. "The flames were above the roof of the house across the street. . . . We hooked up hoses and tried to dampen the properties."

McGarvey has met with Amtrak officials since the April 28 fires, he said, and several steps have been taken to reduce the threat.

He now has direct phone numbers to call Amtrak police dispatchers to stop trains more quickly. Amtrak has offered to conduct a training program with firefighters. And McGarvey has asked Amtrak to clear brush along the tracks. "There's a lot of overgrowth and bamboo, and once ignited, it goes up furiously," he said.

"We need to make sure the areas along the tracks are clear and that Amtrak takes responsibility for its area and works with the local community," McGarvey said. "I think we've made a lot of headway."