The Maryland Transit Administration wants to spend $58 million to buy eight diesel locomotives for its MARC service to replace its fleet of electric engines — welcome news for commuting regulars.
MARC's electric locomotives, powered by an overhead line called a catenary, have been prone to breakdowns, especially in hot weather.
"Sometimes it causes a cascading problem where you have other trains down the line affected," said MTA spokesman Paul Shepard. "Putting additional diesels on the tracks will improve reliability of service and will enhance the passenger experience."
The MTA is moving to make the purchase now because Amtrak plans to stop maintaining MARC's electric fleet. The national railroad, which has maintained MARC's electric locomotives since 1983, notified the agency last fall that it would discontinue that work next summer.
Amtrak told the Maryland agency it cannot keep spare parts for MARC's aging electric fleet in stock anymore because it no longer uses them itself. Kimberly Woods, an Amtrak spokeswoman, said Amtrak has had some of the same locomotives, but the national passenger railroad is moving to replace them.
The MTA plans to ask the state Board of Public Works for permission to piggyback on an Illinois contract with Siemens Industry Inc. to buy the diesel engines.
Concerns about the reliability of MARC peaked in June 2010 when a Penn Line train with an electric locomotive stalled outside Washington in 100-degree heat and the passengers were stranded for two hours. The so-called "hell train" incident became an issue in the 2010 gubernatorial election between then-Gov. Martin O'Malley and former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
MARC owns 10 electric locomotives, which can operate only on its Penn Line between Perryville and Washington. MARC also has 25 diesel locomotives, which are used on the Camden and Brunswick lines as well as the Penn Line. The Camden Line runs between Union Station and Baltimore's Camden Station. The Brunswick Line runs from Martinsburg, W.Va., to Union Station.
Shepard said four of MARC's electric locomotives are 27 years old, near the end of their useful life, while six are 15 years old and do not have a good record for reliability. He said the older models will be scrapped as soon as there are diesels to replace them. The newer models will be evaluated to determine whether they can still be useful.
He said the electric engines in MARC's fleet have a reliability rating of 40 percent to 50 percent — meaning that on average, they are out of service more than half the time.
MARC's diesel fleet, which was replaced about five years ago, has a reliability rating of 85 percent, Shepard said.
Rafi Guroian, a rider on the Penn and Camden lines, won't miss the electric locomotives.
"The old electrics from the 1980s belong in a museum," said Guroian, a former head of the MTA's MARC Riders Advisory Council. The newer ones, he said, "should have lasted another 10 years but they were plagued with breakdowns."
It was one of those newer models that was pulling the "hell train."
Steve Chan, the current advisory council chairman and a Penn Line rider, welcomed the decision to acquire the diesels.
"Hopefully, they'll be nice and reliable and not be bothered by the heat as much," he said.
There is a small trade-off in terms of speed. The diesel engines have less horsepower than the electric engines and cannot go as fast. But Shepard said the difference amounts to no more than five minutes on an express run on the Penn Line from Washington to Perryville.
Shepard said that by piggybacking on the Illinois contract, Maryland will be able to buy the locomotives at a volume discount and save taxpayers money. The MTA said it conducted a national search to find the deal with the best price.
A date has not been scheduled for the matter to go before the public works board. It had been on Wednesday's board agenda but was withdrawn after a losing bidder filed a complaint with the federal government, Shepard said. He said the MTA believes the complaint has no merit but it would likely take several weeks to resolve.
The diesel locomotives are not expected to be delivered until the fall of 2017, Shepard said. That means that for a little over a year, MARC will have to take over maintenance of the electric locomotives.