Amtrak train sparks fires

June 17, 2009 4:21:36 PM PDT
Amtrak seems to be fanning the flames of concern on the lower Main Line. A malfunctioning locomotive has apparently set a number of fires in Wynnewood including a blaze that seriously damaged a house on April 28.

Both homeowners and officials are charging Amtrak with a lack of cooperation.

Wynnewood resident Richard Juliana says flames scorched his back lot and began moving toward the house.

Residents were told to get out.

"It was a substantial fire," Juliana said.

It was a night of fires up and down the tracks in Lower Merion.

"This time we had three or four brushfires burning at the same time, so it was starting to stretch us thin," Chief Charles McGarvey of the Lower Merion Fire Department said.

Embers from the brush sparked a blaze in the top of a house causing a reported half million dollars damage.

What was the source of this?

Amtrak admits a defective diesel locomotive pulling a work train created a shower of hot sparks.

"They were about 20 to 30 feet of sparks in the air; it looked like the fourth of July," Wynnewood resident Caroline Cuthburt said.

Making matters worse, when firefighters called a train dispatcher to stop rail traffic, she refused to do it. Using flares, firefighters were able to shut down the tracks.

Amtrak says there was a miscommunication and the dispatcher could not verify who she was talking to. Lower Merion and Amtrak have since talked.

"We now have a direct line into their police department so we can get this done in a quicker fashion," McGarvey said.

Neighbors are still concerned about dry brush on Amtrak's property that fueled the April blaze.

"If it happened a few hours later when everyone was in bed asleep it could have been a real disaster, with major loss of life involved here," Juliana said.

Amtrak has since told Lower Merion it has a program to eradicate that dry brush.

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