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Light rail learns by baseball runs MTA solves many wrinkles before full service starts.


It was 11:03 p.m. at Camden Yards and here was the night's final score: 35.

Even in the chill air, the top managers of the Mass Transit Administration (MTA) were warmed by the tally. And it didn't even matter that the Orioles had just beaten the Minnesota Twins, 6-2, in a sparkling midweek performance.

The only result that counted was that the bulk of the baseball fans had been boarded on light-rail trains 35 minutes after Twin right fielder Pedro Munoz grounded to Cal Ripken for the final out of the game.

"Not too bad," said MTA Administrator Ronald J. Hartman, who has spent a dozen such evenings on the stadium's light-rail platform.

To the people behind Baltimore's new Central Light Rail system, the crowds going to and from the new ballpark for the season's earliest games were more than just baseball fans -- they were guinea pigs.

Since April 3, when the MTA began limited operations between Timonium and Camden Yards for Oriole home games, officials have gotten a chance to tinker, to figure out what works and doesn't work on the trolley system, and make adjustments.

The result: When the first 13-mile light-rail segment opens for full service Sunday, the trains will be more likely on time, supervisors will be able to react to emergencies more readily, and riders will be ticketed faster, thanks to the more than 65,000 fans who will already have used the system.

"The stadium service is the best thing that happened to us," says Mr. Hartman. "We learned a lot. You can do all the simulations in the world, but you need live, breathing people."

But, the process of shuttling an average 3,000 to 4,000 baseball fans a night has made clear that not all of the problems of the $446.3 million system can be corrected before the grand opening.

Some are inherent to light rail, a form of mass transit that has been gaining support in cities across the nation.

It is a hybrid between the old-fashioned trolley lines and a commuter railroad, with the advantages of both. Some experts contend it has the deficiencies of both modes.

Others are the result of efforts to keep light rail's initial costs down. The lack of parking along the route and occasional overcrowding and slow service are due, at least partly, to budgetary constraints.

"If it had cost too much, the appeal of the system would have declined," says Z. Andrew Farkas, a Morgan State University associate professor and transit expert. "There are trade-offs."

The most obvious difficulty so far has been in handling the crush of baseball fans.

Customers have reportedly waited on light-rail platforms for up to 45 minutes -- and been bypassed at times by inbound trains that already were full. After the games, the MTA has had to use buses at times to supplement the light-rail trains.

The reasons for the crowding are numerous. More than one-third of the system is single-track, which means that northbound trains must sometimes wait for southbound trains to pass and vice versa before entering a single-track section.

As a consequence, trains can be spaced no closer than 15 minutes apart. It would have cost the state $20 million more to lay two sets of track through the entire 22.5-mile system, but officials believe it will cost them even more to go back and add the track now.

two-car light-rail train can carry up to 400 people, but the most popular stops -- and the only ones with parking -- are at the north end, so inbound trains may fill quickly despite the MTA's policy of allowing seated customers only at Timonium, its busiest station.

Another dilemma has been the ticketing machines. They operate slowly, dispensing one fare at a time, and have had to be supplemented by MTA workers selling tickets by hand for two hours before games.

The ride from Timonium to the ballpark, which was supposed to take 35 minutes, has generally lasted at least 40 minutes and sometimes longer. Even under ideal conditions -- without passengers on board and with clearance given all the way up the line -- the best time recorded so far has been 33 minutes.

There have been minor breakdowns, at least three because of computer software glitches in the rail cars. When that happens, it has meant taking cars out of service. That has compounded the delays.

"Unless there is some way you can speed up the rush-hour trains . . . I fear you are not going to get any converts to mass transit," wrote one irate rider in an April 15 letter to the MTA. "You may even alienate some current riders who are already talking about driving their cars downtown because the light rail is so slow."

To counter these problems, the MTA has been instructing its light-rail operators to work more efficiently, not to stop at stations where there are no customers waiting, for instance, or where no passenger has signaled a stop request.

A third fare machine is being added at Timonium. It and other fare machines are being reprogrammed to process transactions more quickly. A new button -- one that would allow a customer to buy four tickets at once -- will eventually be added to the machines. There is also discussion of allowing customers to buy tickets in advance and punch them in at time clocks at stations.

"The changes will make the machines 50 percent faster," Mr. Hartman says.

The MTA is acquiring more rail cars, an average of one every 10 days, and will have at least 17 in service by May 17.

The MTA will have 28 cars by the time the system opens to Glen Burnie next summer.

The added cars mean longer trains -- three cars instead of two -- capable of handling 50 percent larger crowds.

Officials also believe they are getting better at running light rail. The MTA's 26 light-rail operators are more familiar with the system, particularly when traveling along Howard Street, where the trains mix with traffic.

"There's a professionalism and a sharpness now," says James F. Buckley, the MTA's assistant general manager. "We wouldn't be so confident if we hadn't had the Oriole experience."

The system's parking situation is a different story. There are fewer than 1,200 spaces along the first segment: 850 at Timonium, 160 in Lutherville, and 75 each at Falls Road and Mount Washington. The remaining eleven stops have no parking at all. By comparison, the Metro has 8,000 parking spaces along its route.

But like the single-track decision, this was a dollars-and-cents move. Buying parking within the city was prohibitively expensive, but officials are nevertheless negotiating with private interests to create a new lot at Cold Spring Lane.

"The system is designed to grow as ridership increases," says Mr. Hartman. "We wanted to build as needed."

Light rail's next growth spurt is scheduled to take place in August, when the 3.2-mile extension to Patapsco Avenue opens.

The remaining 5.6-mile leg to Glen Burnie probably will open in the first half of next year.

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