MARC soothes commuters, pushes to get Penn Line trains running on time


As a publication, it's about as riveting as watching mud dry, but commuters have reason to cherish the new MARC Commuter Notice.

It's a weekly newsletter outlining the on-time record of all Maryland Rail Commuter trains on the Penn Line. The journal notes when trains are more than five minutes late and the reasons for the delay.

That may not seem like much, but it's a happy event for long-suffering MARC commuters who have begun to wonder if anyone's listening to their complaints. Trains on the Penn Line -- from Perryville to Baltimore to Washington -- have MARC's worst on-time performance.

Their average over the first five months of the year is 84 percent. Compare that with the Mass Transit Administration's stated goal of 95 percent on-time, and the record's not good.

Two weeks ago, MTA Administrator John A. Agro Jr. took the unusual step of sending mea culpa letters to his Penn Line customers (copies were placed on passenger seats), noting that service had "fallen well below an acceptable level."

Within days, Mr. Agro met with Amtrak President Thomas M. Downs and elicited a promise: Amtrak trains will not always get dispatch priority.

That's a pretty big deal. MARC contracts with Amtrak to run its Penn Line operations (Maryland doesn't get much of a choice in the matter since Amtrak owns the rails and has always given its own trains the right of way).

Under the old system, "if their trains weren't on time, our trains weren't on time," says James Buckley, MTA's deputy administrator.

In fact, Amtrak's policy of giving its trains priority on the rails has been the leading cause of delays on the Penn Line.

Howard Robertson, an Amtrak spokesman, said the new policy still will give dispatch priority to Metroliner and long-distance intercity service. But MARC trains will have equal status with unreserved conventional trains -- about half Amtrak's service.

"Metroliners and intercity trains are high volume and high revenue, they have to be our priority," Mr. Robertson says. "But Mr. Downs believes we need to provide outstanding service to all our customers including MARC, which pays us a fee to use our line."

Amtrak officials now participate in a daily conference call with MARC officials to discuss the previous day's performance. A MARC employee was even allowed to spend a week in Amtrak's Philadelphia dispatch center to lobby for MARC trains.

Mr. Buckley says the MTA is taking other steps to improve performance. They include putting more new equipment on the Penn Line and putting more MARC employees in stations and on trains to observe performance first-hand.

"We want to be as open as we possibly can," says Dianna Rosborough, an MTA spokeswoman. "This was the first time we've written a letter to our customers, and we're committed to keeping them informed -- good or bad."

One problem out of their control is the heat, which makes rails expand and overhead electrical lines droop. When temperatures rise above 95 degrees, Amtrak must sometimes slow trains from up to 125 mph to 80 mph as a safety precaution.

To Jones Falls: Pick a direction

Indecision, thy name is Baltimore.

As evidence, we point to a lot of pointing. Check out the Interstate 83 directional signs along westbound 33rd Street at the intersection with Barclay Street, University Parkway and Merryman Lane.

On the right, an I-83 shield has an arrow pointing left to Merryman (which happens to be a one-way street in the wrong direction.)

On the left, another I-83 shield and arrow point right to Barclay. Good luck finding your way through Guilford.

But if you happen to be going south on Barclay at 33rd, you'd see an I-83 shield recommending you turn right to University Parkway.

Ednor Gardens resident Herbert D. Andrews finds this situation rather comical. He describes it as "an interesting array of signs designed to confuse."

Vanessa Pyatt, spokeswoman for the city's Public Works Department, agrees that "indeed, the signs do not point motorists in the direction they need to go to access the Jones Falls Expressway."

As a result of Mr. Andrews' letter to us, the city has made changes. The signs now either point motorists to St. Paul Street or Maryland Avenue or to University (and then on to Cold Spring Lane).

Mrs. Pyatt says the city has been upgrading signs along that route anyway in conjunction with the reopening of Memorial Stadium for Canadian Football League games. Crews are in the midst of a $1 million resurfacing of 33rd between Hillen Road and Greenmount Avenue.

Unfortunately, that work won't be finished until next month. The contractor has so far paved from Hillen to Ellerslie Avenue and has another four blocks to go.


* Penn Station update: Construction on the new parking garage is expected to be finished by late fall with work on the plaza entrance wrapped up next spring. Total construction cost is pegged at $9.1 million.

* A slew of calls this week from unhappy rail commuters on the Camden Line. MTA officials blamed thunderstorms for delays Tuesday and Wednesday. Electrical outages wreaked havoc on the signal system.

* To all those fed up with the Beltway construction in Golden Ring, better learn patience. The $11.7 million project begun in March won't be finished until the fall of next year. Workers are widening from two to three lanes a 1.7-mile segment from I-95 to Route 702 (Southeast Boulevard) and a half-mile chunk of U.S. 40 from the Beltway to Rossville Boulevard. Expect to confront Beltway lane closures at night and Pulaski Highway work at midday.

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