Riders see MARC changes, like its trains, as overdue

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Two months ago, Sue Barnes was an enthusiastic customer of Maryland's rail commuter system.

Today, she calls herself a "bitter, frustrated one."

The transformation developed in a matter of hours -- hours spent waiting, that is. Some days her daily train commute took 15 to 30 minutes longer than the one hour it was supposed to take. Several weeks ago, her train was held up without warning for an extra hour and 15 minutes.

Practically the only thing the Otterbein resident could count on once she boarded her Maryland Rail Commuter (MARC) train was that it would run behind schedule.

"I got to the point that I didn't care if I'd invested $110 in a monthly pass or not, I was ready to drive my car," said Mrs. Barnes, who commutes each day to a federal government job in Washington. "It's been very, very frustrating."

Mrs. Barnes is not alone. This summer, and particularly in July, MARC's on-time record has been abysmal.

Records from the Mass Transit Administration, the state agency responsible for MARC, read like a report card for a perennially truant child: "July 1: 18 trains delayed; July 2: 14 trains late; July 6: 11 trains late." The list goes on and on.

The MTA's goal is for MARC trains to run on time 95 percent of the time. Their performance last month dipped to 74 percent.

"Clearly, the last two months and especially this past month have been a problem," said Ronald J. Hartman, the MTA administrator. "The cause seems to be a combination of factors, not all of which are clear to me."

The reasons for the delays range from recent problems such as thunderstorms knocking out signal systems to long-term dilemmas like MARC's aging equipment and the crowded tracks between Washington and Baltimore where commuter trains must compete for space with long-distance passenger and freight trains.

The list is long and varied, but one theme stands out: MARC ridership has nearly tripled since 1985 to about 19,500 passengers daily. The demands of that growth are finally catching up with the system.

"There's a lot of growing pains here," said John H. Hovatter, director of passenger services for Jacksonville, Fla.-based CSX Transportation Inc., which operates two of the three MARC lines. "Definitely, we're overtaxed with the equipment we have and trying to handle the number of people."

MARC's most embarrassing moment came July 7 when 85 MARC passengers were stranded on a remote siding in Washington for nearly two hours in the middle of the night on a return trip from an extra-innings Orioles game. CSX officials ordered the train stopped when they found an engineer had failed to notify his dispatcher that he was nearing the end of his 12-hour work shift, a limitation imposed by federal law.

Monday, state Transportation Secretary O. James Lighthizer announced the appointment of William R. McCaffrey, a former delegate from Prince George's County, to run the system. His predecessor was transferred to a post at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

The problems with the system "are partly our fault," Mr. Lighthizer told a group of MARC passengers meeting at Union Station in Washington.

But the secretary and others have also pointed fingers at MARC's two contractors, CSX and Amtrak, which own the tracks and dispatch, operate and maintain the trains. Mr. Lighthizer met in Florida Friday with A. R. "Pete" Carpenter, president and chief executive officer of CSX Transportation, to discuss his complaints. He said he hopes to have a similar conversation with Amtrak officials soon.

"They recognized there is a greater need for partnership and cooperation and much better planning and communication," Mr. Lighthizer said after meeting with Mr. Carpenter and other CSX officials. "Clearly, freight is where the money is, but I'm certain that, at least at the top level, they're absolutely committed to passenger rail."

CSX operates the Camden line between Camden Station in Baltimore and Union Station in Washington and the Brunswick line from Union Station west to Brunswick in Frederick County and three stops in West Virginia.

Amtrak is responsible for the Penn line, which runs from Perryville in Cecil County to Penn Station downtown and Washington's Union Station.

When the state acquired the commuter rail system from CSX in 1974, it averaged 4,000 to 5,000 passengers a day, a quarter of its current daily ridership. Since then, the state has invested about $50 million to upgrade facilities along the routes and $100 million in rail cars and locomotives.

But even that investment has proved inadequate, officials claim. MARC's 98 rail cars include 32 that have been rebuilt and 13 rail diesel cars, or RDCs, 1950s vintage diesel-powered cars that MARC would dearly love to scrap.

The system also claims 15 locomotives, 11 diesel and four electric. Their problem? Not enough power to haul the longer trains needed to handle increased MARC ridership. "Anybody who rides the system knows we don't have state-of-the-art equipment," Mr. Hovatter of CSX said. "We tell them [MARC] every day that we need new equipment. What we harp on is locomotives.

"It's like a pinto pulling a mobile home," he said.

Equipment breakdowns have been a leading cause for delays, but they are not the only cause. Some of the other reasons behind the tardy trains:

* A $13 million signal system installed by CSX along the Camden line that the state and federal government helped pay for has malfunctioned at times and has proved vulnerable to lightning strikes.

* Track repairs, generally performed in the warm summer months, sometimes reduce the number of tracks available.

* Competition with other trains for busy tracks. Amtrak gives priority to its express Metroliner trains and sometimes its regular intercity trains. CSX claims it always gives MARC priority over its freight trains, but state officials are skeptical.

* Schedules give trains inadequate turn-around time and are generally written too optimistically. If a MARC train is late, it will likely be late for the rest of the day because the timetables give little leeway.

"The schedules were developed with the expectation that all trains run on schedule within a reasonable tolerance of a few minutes," said Ed Walker, Amtrak's district superintendent for commuter services. "When one train is delayed and gets out of its designated slot, it is likely to interfere with other trains."

What frequently aggravates MARC passengers most are not the five- or 10-minute delays but the half-hour and hourlong holdups. Why a train is stopped is too often kept a mystery, veteran riders complain. They wish MARC agents would tell them in advance about problems down the line.

"I would appreciate some kind of rational explanation as to why they would make us wait so long," a MARC user wrote last month to the MTA. "Many more people would use your MARC train if it were more reliable."

Still, regular MARC customers maintain a fierce loyalty toward the system and, remarkably, ridership has shown no signs of slackening. As workers continue to locate farther from Washington and Baltimore, MARC use is likely only to increase.

In the short term, MARC hopes to acquire as many as 10 new and rebuilt locomotives within the year and 20 rail cars, 10 new and 10 rebuilt ones, by March of next year.

On the drawing board is a $200 million upgrade of the MARC system with an expansion into Frederick within the next five years.

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