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Off the MARC, off the track


This has been a bad summer for the Maryland Rail Commuter agency, known as MARC. So bad that the director has been ousted and the transportation secretary has demanded big changes.

On-time service has plunged; nearly three times out of 10, you'll arrive at your destination (usually either Baltimore or Washington) much later than you expected.

Sometimes you won't get there at all. And a few embarrassing episodes for MARC passengers attending Oriole baseball games have triggered a flurry of demands for action.

Yet perhaps the biggest shift was sanctioned months ago by the Maryland General Assembly: the takeover of MARC operations by the larger and more experienced Mass Transit Administration. The turnover occurred July 1.

MARC has grown in popularity with commuters, who recognize the ease and convenience of no-hassle rail travel. Ridership is up three-fold in just seven years.

The line now extends as far north as Perryville in Cecil County and as far west as Brunswick. There is also federal money available to expand MARC to Frederick and Southern Maryland.

Yet rail officials have not been able to keep up with this rapid growth. Too many decrepit and unreliable cars and engines and a lack of accountability by the two private rail lines that run the commuter trains -- CSX and Amtrak -- have added to the problem. So has a new ultra-sensitive electronic signal system that keeps breaking down.

MARC has had to put every piece of equipment on the track to meet commuting demand. On many days, it has a "zero spare ratio" -- rail terminology for no backup trains or equipment in reserve. By contrast, the MTA always has 15 percent of its fleet available to handle the unexpected.

Now Ronald Hartman of the MTA is playing catch-up. He's seeking new or renovated rail cars from around the country to replace the worst antiques on the MARC line.

Additional federal money should mean a doubling of the fleet size, starting with a big purchase this fall that will include bi-level cars that greatly increase capacity and have proven popular with commuters in other regions. And the MTA is drawing up MARC's first-ever long-range fleet plan.

The MTA is also working on integrating MARC into the entire mass-transit system so that someone purchasing a MARC ticket can also use local buses, the light-rail line or the Metro. Feeder bus routes to MARC stations are also under study.

Commuter rail lines offer a cost-effective way to increase mass ,, transit in the Baltimore-Washington region. But to be successful, the trains must arrive on time and commuters must be happy with the service. That should be the MTA's top priority.

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