At Penn Station, MARC commuters talk about service delays. (Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore Sun video)
As MARC train delays mounted and passenger complaints erupted in a collective roar this summer, Maryland Transit Administration CEO Kevin Quinn wrote a letter chastising Amtrak for the on-time performance of the Penn Line, which runs on the passenger railroad’s tracks between Baltimore and Washington.
The MTA acknowledged that record rainfall, mechanical failures and track work had contributed to delays, Quinn wrote. But agency officials could not explain to frustrated passengers why nearly half of all the morning southbound Penn Line trains running late that month.
“I trust you agree with me that recent Penn Line performance is unacceptable and must be improved,” Quinn wrote in the Aug. 9 letter. “The further inconvenience to customers beyond track work has led to numerous complaints and stressful interactions with Amtrak crew and MARC Train staff.”
Penn Line service has improved this fall, as Amtrak has completed some track work and addressed repeated flooding in the 145-year-old Baltimore & Potomac Tunnel under the city. But one of the railroad’s three tracks between Baltimore and Washington remains out of service, riders still are complaining and the Penn Line continues to fall short of the agencies’ on-time goals for MARC service.
“The entire summer has been awful,” said June Brandt, a member of the MARC Riders Advisory Commission who’s seen numerous delays and schedule changes on her daily commute from Perryville to Washington’s Union Station.
After arriving on time just 63 percent of the time in July and about 77 percent of the time in August, the Penn Line was on time nearly 83 percent of the time in September.
The state agency’s agreement with Amtrak requires the passenger railroad to develop a plan to address on-time rates of less than 88 percent, Quinn said.
This summer’s heavy rains affected Amtrak’s signaling system and repeatedly flooded out one of the two B&P Tunnel tracks, causing significant delays for MARC and Amtrak trains, wrote Thomas Moritz, Amtrak’s assistant vice president of infrastructure access and development, in an Aug. 31 response to Quinn’s letter.
“Under such extreme circumstances, our dispatchers require flexibility to make decisions to keep the entire operation moving during these events,” Moritz wrote. “Sometimes this may require a train making local stops to hold so that an express train operating on the same track may advance ahead of it, to prevent further stacking of delayed MARC and Amtrak trains behind it.
Separate, ongoing track work between the BWI Marshall Airport and West Baltimore MARC stations began in August and is expected to be completed by mid-November, Amtrak spokeswoman Kimberly Woods said Wednesday.
“All trains are operating on reduced speeds in this area while passing the work zone for the safety of workers,” Woods said in an emailed statement.
MARC’s Penn, Camden and Brunswick lines transport about 37,000 people each weekday.
Summer flooding also affected the Camden and Brunswick lines, which operate on CSX Transportation freight rails, but their on-time rates remained high. The Camden Line had an on-time rate of 85 percent in July; Brunswick’s was nearly 91 percent, Quinn said.
The MTA CEO attributed about 85 percent of the Penn Line delays to Amtrak problems.
Congress ordered the technology installed a decade ago, but companies have repeatedly sought delays. Federal Railroad Administrator Ronald Batory has told Congress he believes 12 railroads, including Maryland's MARC train, could miss the latest implementation deadlines.
In his letter, Moritz suggested that discussions between Amtrak and MTA officials “should also include advancing the final design and construction of the B&P Tunnel Replacement Project among other key improvements.”
The tunnel is a bottleneck in the passenger railroad’s Northeast Corridor because of its age and winding design, which require slower speeds. Amtrak has not yet secured funding for the design or construction of the proposed $4.5 billion replacement tunnel, and the project faces some opposition from community groups that object to its potential effects on city neighborhoods.
The MARC Riders Advisory Commission has expressed riders’ frustrations with MTA and Amtrak officials, said Steve Chan, a daily Penn Line commuter who is chairman of the rider advocacy group.
The delays have been especially painful for hourly workers, said Chan, a federal cybersecurity employee who lives in Baltimore.
Since Dec. 6, 2014, MARC has been running a bike car on weekends between Baltimore and Washington, D.C., but passengers with bicycles could only use the car on the first and last trains of Saturday and Sunday. In late August, bike cars were added to six of nine Saturday round-trip trains and all six Sunday round-trip trains before the service was expanded to every MARC train on the weekends on Oct. 31.
Chan said he understands the ongoing track work will allow for faster train speeds. When one of the tracks is closed, he said, dispatchers have more difficulty removing broken-down trains.
“That has a cascading effect,” he said.
Jay Morrow, 46, a web services manager at the University of the District of Columbia who lives in Baltimore, is considering ditching MARC after using the Penn Line for the past decade because of this summer’s delays.
“I try to leave as early as possible,” Morrow said one morning this week. “If I leave anytime after the 7 o’clock train, I’m guaranteed to be late.”
On the way home, she added, it hardly matters which train she boards: “There’s guaranteed to be a delay.”
“It’s frustrating after a while,” Morrow said. “Hopefully they get better service if they’re going to keep coming up on the fares.”
Whenever Daniel Wynne hears a conductor apologizing for a MARC train delay over the intercom without giving a reason, the 56-year-old has the same irritated thought.
“No, I’m not forgiving you!” the Station North resident said he always wants to holler back.
Wynne, who takes the train to Washington several times a week for appointments, wants better communication. On a plane, Wynne reasoned, passengers are given timely updates when delays occur, as well as an explanation why.
“If I’m five or 10 minutes late,” he said, “I’ve got to reschedule.”
Brandt’s daily MARC train used to leave the Perryville station at 5:40 a.m. and arrive at Union Station in Washington at 7:25 a.m., she said.
The MTA adjusted the train’s schedule six months ago so it leaves Perryville 20 minutes earlier, to avoid being caught behind Amtrak trains, Brandt said. But rather than moving up the scheduled arrival time as well, the MTA pushed it back five minutes, she said.
Despite the extended schedule, “it has not been getting there anywhere near” the scheduled arrival time, Brandt said.
She tried taking the earlier train, which leaves at 4:35 a.m., but that train was canceled twice in one week. A canceled train can cost her an hour or more, because fewer trains come all the way to Perryville.
Protesters gathered outside Dorothy I. Height Elementary School in West Baltimore to voice concerns over the proposed Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel Project, which includes plans to build a diesel exhaust shaft adjacent to the school.
Brandt recalled MARC officials beginning two Riders Advisory Council meetings in a row this summer by describing the previous month as “one of the most challenging months in MARC history.”
“This year seems to have been a lot worse — a lot more delays, a lot more cancellations,” she said.
Marla Chassereau, 54, of Middle River is holding out hope that Amtrak’s maintenance work will wrap up soon and the trains run more efficiently.
She takes the train daily between Martin State Airport and Penn Station for her job as a pharmacy procurement technician at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Baltimore, and she has noticed recent improvements.