Sumitomos are train rider's delight


Warning: Intrepid Commuter's best joke this week doesn't show up until the 17th paragraph. (No peeking ahead, please.)


Inside a cold, dark former airplane hangar in Middle River, springs forth a little ray of hope for Maryland Rail Commuter customers.

Workers are in the final stages of assembling five passenger coaches for eventual use in the MARC system. Regular train commuters would recognize them instantly: They are Sumitomo Corp. cars, the highly reliable 120-seat coaches of Japanese manufacture.

With their gleaming, stainless-steel exteriors and seats colored pumpkin and royal blue, the Sumitomos have become familiar workhorses. The final five are the last of 35 cars purchased by the state over a three-year period for slightly less than $35 million.

Sumitomos now represent about two-thirds of the MARC fleet of 97 coaches. That's good news for rail-riders; Sumitomos are the cleanest in the fleet, the least likely to break down, and the most comfortable.

"I love these guys," says George F. Payne, MARC's chief mechanical officer. "I've never had to pull one back to the shop after it's been out. If we could have more of these, I'd be happy."

The bodies of the five cars arrived at South Locust Point Terminal in mid-December. At the hangar across from Martin State Airport, helpful features such as wheels, brakes and electronics are added by workers employed by Transit and Transportation Associates, a local subcontractor.

First, devices that resemble oversized jacks are used to lift the coach shells and place them on their trucks -- the sets of steel wheels. Then the underbody work is done, which includes adding the air-conditioning unit, brakes, batteries and couplers.

When that work is completed, the car is let down on the trucks and pushed to the next stage where the interior parts are installed. These include the heating units, lights, luggage racks, and seats.

Throughout the assembly process, the coaches are inspected regularly for defects and tested frequently. Last Friday, the tests given to a recently completed car included a washing down from a high-velocity hose to make sure the gaskets around the windows were properly sealed.

The cars are expected to be delivered to MARC by March 21. Their arrival will not affect train schedules, but rush-hour patrons will have a better chance of finding a seat on expanded trains.

The question for MARC now is: What next? The Mass Transit Administration plans to rehabilitate 10 vintage 1949 Budd cars this year, but has yet to formulate a long-term plan of acquisitions to accommodate MARC's tremendous growth.

The system handles nearly 20,000 riders each day, a tripling of service in the past five years. While other mass transit systems in this state lose ridership, MARC continues to grow and grow.

One possibility being considered is entering a several-year contract to buy multilevel cars, perhaps double-deckers or "gallery" cars like those used in the Chicago area.

But before that can happen, the MTA will need a guarantee from the Federal Transit Administration that money for the cars will be available in future years. This year, the federal government gave the state only $10 million for MARC instead of the $60 million Congress had promised in 1991.

"We need to continue a program of acquisitions over the next six years and we're negotiating with the FTA," says John A. Agro Jr., the MTA's acting general manager. "We plan to be extremely aggressive [in acquiring more cars]."

Since this item contained surprisingly little humor, we offer this: Why do some workers never look out a window in the morning? Because then they'd have nothing to do in the afternoon.

Sign for city museum is no work of art

A loyal reader from Roland Park is also a fan of the Baltimore Museum of Art (Zounds, the gentleman has taste!) and recently observed a problem with a street sign that qualifies as no masterpiece.

The sign is located at the southbound Jones Falls Expressway's 28th and 29th streets interchange. It points left so that motorists will know to veer left to 29th Street to get to the museum.

The problem: The sign comes before the exit ramp -- and long before the turn. A motorist could better use this information while on the ramp when it's time to decide which way to veer, our reader observes.

Well, we passed this message to the city's traffic types and -- Bravissimo! -- the sign will be relocated to a spot on the ramp.

"We followed up on your reader's question on the sign," says Vanessa Pyatt, spokeswoman for the city Department of Public Works. "We are in agreement that the sign should be closer to the 28th Street ramp."

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