'I’ve lost a day of my life to MARC delays': Bad weather, track work causing problems for commuters

Michael Collins has been late to several recent meetings at work. He’s missed putting his two young daughters to bed. His stress level has spiked.

The reason? A spate of delays on the MARC train he rides from Baltimore’s Penn Station to Washington’s Union Station. Over the last two months, Collins said, he’s informally documented about 20 instances where his train has been 30 minutes late or more.

“I’ve lost a day of my life to MARC delays,” said Collins, 35.

The Maryland Transit Administration blames the recent bad weather and scheduled track work for the frequent service disruptions that have frustrated commuters across the region. MARC’s Penn, Camden and Brunswick lines transport about 37,000 people each week day.

“Excessive rainfall in Maryland over the past several weeks — coupled with Amtrak’s scheduled track work — has resulted in some recent cancellations and delays on our MARC Train service,” agency spokeswoman Veronica Battisti wrote in a statement.

She said high water has forced some trains to reduce their speed to 10-15 mph in affected areas. The Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel between West Baltimore and Penn Station also has seen “significant flooding.”

MARC trains operate on tracks owned by Amtrak and CSX Transportation. Those railroads “often route their trains ahead of MARC trains,” Battisti added.

Amtrak, furthermore, is doing work on the tracks between Odenton and Bowie State University. The southbound track is currently out of service, so passengers are required to board trains on the middle track from a temporary platform.

“This has delayed trains due to precision trainspotting required to line the doors up and caused slower detraining and boarding of passengers across the narrower platforms,” Battisti wrote.

Amtrak’s rail maintenance is expected to be completed later this month, she wrote.

“We apologize to our customers for any inconvenience,” she wrote.

She said MARC was working with Amtrak, CSX and Bombardier, the company that operates the trains on the Camden and Brunswick lines, to improve service.

“This includes having more locomotives available and adjusting crew assignments to minimize delays,” she wrote. ”We will continue to urge Amtrak and CSX to give priority to MARC trains on the rails.”

An Amtrak spokeswoman said the national passenger railroad tries to avoid substantial operational impacts on its service and that of commuter railroads when performing needed track work.

“Amtrak does not unreasonably hold any trains, including MARC trains, when dispatching,” said Beth Toll, the spokeswoman. “Priority decisions are made based on the need to run passenger train services on time, safely and reliably.”

A CSX spokesman said the company plans to continue supporting the “on-time arrival of MARC trains.”

“While CSX is fully committed to the safe and on-time performance of MARC commuter trains, recent weather related incidents have resulted in some unforeseen disruptions to service,” Christopher Smith wrote in an emailed statement.

Commuters who usually keep to themselves have taken to exchanging MARC horror stories, the shared misery bringing them together.

“When you get off the train with people, they’ll say, ‘Oh, yesterday was terrible,’ or, ‘Were you around when it was an hour late?’” Collins said.

On Thursday morning, Collins was on his way to work when the train he was on broke down. Passengers were stranded in Odenton for 30 minutes, he said. Eventually they were asked to get off, and another train came to pick them up.

“I’m 35 going on 70 because of this commute,” he said.

Neil Cooler, a computer engineer who commutes from Baltimore to Washington, was on the same train. There wasn’t enough room on the first train that arrived, so Cooler was stuck waiting in Odenton even longer. He got to Washington about 90 minutes later than scheduled.

The promise of a reliable way to commute to Washington via MARC was the reason why Cooler decided to move from Arlington, Va., to Baltimore in 2015. The persistent issues are making him think he might have to switch jobs.

“I can’t manage this commute forever,” he said.

Collins has taken to direct messaging the MTA Twitter account whenever his train is delayed.

“20 minutes today,” Collins wrote to MTA on July 24. “No explanation.”

“Another today,” he wrote the next day. “740 from Union station delayed 30 minutes.”

The MTA frequently sends out alerts with delay advisories, but some commuters say these messages often arrive late or are inaccurate.

After an Amtrak train from New Orleans derailed Thursday while arriving at Union Station, the MTA sent out a tweet: “No impact to MARC service as a result of Amtrak derailment in Washington.”

On Friday afternoon, the MTA issued an apology to its riders. The derailment had, in fact, affected MARC trains and caused delays.

Two hours later, MTA tweeted that Amtrak had notified MARC that there would be delays to its service Friday due to terminal congestion at Union Station related to the ongoing repairs from the derailment.

trichman@baltsun.com

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