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MTA gives MARC riders bad advice -- and why

On the Inside Charm City blog, Jeff Quinton describes an incident Wednesday night in which the 7:30 p.m. MARC train out of Union Station was delayed because of equipment problems.

Quinton's article is worth a read, but the short version is that a Maryland Transit Administration employee -- trying to be helpful to a degree that surprises me -- gave passengers trying to get to BWI to catch flights some very bad advice.

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The employee suggested that MARC Penn riders switch to the Camden Line, ride to Baltimore and backtrack to BWI on the light raiil.

You can do that, and it will get you there, but as Quinton noted, riders would likely get to BWI at about 9:30 p.m. That's pretty late for folks trying to catch a flight.

Quinton wrote that if the Penn Line train left 20 minutes late, it would have arrived at BWI station at 8:30 p.m. Figuring 15 minutes for a shuttle ride, he estimated that staying on the Penn Line would have got the  rider to BWI about 8:45 -- 45 minutes earlier than the Camden Line solution.

But waiting for the Penn Line train was not the correct choice, as Quinton's article implies.

What the MTA employee should have done was have advised BWI riders that they could catch the Washington Metro Red Line, connect to the Green Line at Fort Totten and catch the B30 bus at Greenbelt. Based on the time Quinton was informed of the delay, reasonably mobile riders could have caught the 7:20 Red Line train and made the connection to the 8:00 p.m. B30. BWI terminal arrival: 8:31. (Times courtesy of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Administration  trip planner.)

I disagree with Quinton's diagnosis of employee incompetence. What this suggests is not that the MTA employee was incompetent but that he was thinking within the MTA box and not considering all transit solutions. This is a matter of training and planning by MARC managers, not front-line employees.

Here's what  the MTA needs to do:

Short term:

1. Thoroughly brief MARC customer service employees on the B30 bus and its utility as an emergency backup. Train them to use the WMATA trip planner to plot out alternatives for riders when a train breaks down.

2. Plan for the next delay. Print out instructions in advance for delays on each train to BWI. Copy them in bulk and have them ready to distribute to passengers hurrying to catch a flight. The time spent giving verbal instructions can cause riders to miss the subway that makes a timely bus connection.

Long term:

1. Integrate the MTA data base with WMATA's (and those of other local transit agencies) so riders get the best transit information, not the best MTA-only information.

2. Work with WMATA to get the B30 running at 20-minute intervals, rather than 40 minutes, so missing one bus isn't a big problem.

The same advice from a consultant would cost the MTA thousands of dollars. Here, we'll take whatever change Administrator Paul Wiedefeld can spare.

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UPDATE: Quinton emailed me back to say that according to a friend, after one such delay, MTA officials put MARC riders with flight reservations on an Amtrak train. That's probably the best solution for riders when the MTA can do so. When it can't, the B30 is there.

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