Commuters angered by late trains; MARC delays common since CSX takeover of two rail lines in June; Mass transit future at risk; State senators demand immediate action, fear riders will leave system


It happened again to Steve Beasley on Tuesday. For at least the 10th time this summer, the Maryland Rail Commuter train between his home in Laurel and his job in Washington was delayed.

The minutes ticked by. Nearly an hour passed. He would be late for work again.

It has been that way since June 1, when CSX Corp., owner of two of MARC's three rail lines, took over parts of the Conrail freight system. Freight traffic increased far beyond CSX's expectations and, in the competition for the rails, passenger trains have lost out.

In June and July, 372 MARC trains were late, according to the Mass Transit Administration. The on-time record of the Brunswick line, between Brunswick and Washington, dropped from 98 percent to 84 percent; on the Camden line, between Camden Station and Washington, it went from 92 percent to 77 percent.

In some instances, a shortage of CSX employees left trains standing without operators at the end of work shifts. At other times, CSX dispatchers simply gave preference to freight customers.

"I've been riding MARC for 12 years -- I'm a very strongly committed mass transit person," said Beasley, an economist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But service has deteriorated too far, he said.

The problems have state officials and Maryland's two U.S. senators demanding immediate solutions. Dedicated passengers like Beasley are poised to do the unthinkable -- begin driving to work.

"It's sending a signal to us commuters that we cannot rely on the MARC rail, and that flies in the face of the mass transit push in Maryland," Beasley said.

Maryland Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari, who is drafting a plan to double transit ridership in the next 20 years, is as frustrated as passengers.

"It is unacceptable when the governor has given us this goal and we have existing MARC customers who are missing meetings, appointments and business deals because they can't get to work on time," said Porcari.

"We're going to work very hard to get CSX to provide exactly what they agreed to in their contract," he said.

Service on MARC's Penn Line, which is owned by Amtrak, has been unaffected, officials said.

A spokesman for CSX said top managers at the company are "very focused on this issue."

"We too are very dissatisfied with the situation as it stands," said Robert L. Gould, CSX spokesman. "It affects not only our passengers, but our freight customers, too."

CSX has dispatched a team from its Jacksonville, Fla., headquarters to examine the problem. It will file a report with state transportation officials in the next two weeks.

As a first step, the company hopes to accelerate improvements on the Brunswick line to allow faster switching of trains between tracks. It has also suggested eliminating four of the 20 daily trains along the Camden line -- a proposal state officials said is unacceptable.

Porcari said he has seen no workable plan.

In a letter Aug. 13 to CSX President John W. Snow, Sens. Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland described one delay of an hour and 20 minutes.

Before the merger, "CSX clearly stated that the increase in traffic due to the Conrail takeover would have no adverse impact on MARC service," they wrote.

They called for immediate action to correct the problems.

"We are deeply concerned," Sarbanes said yesterday. "It is causing incredible frustration and anger on the part of commuters. If it continues, people will leave the rails wholesale, and it will reverse everything we've been trying to accomplish."

Beasley said the company should do more than fix the troubles. Passengers who bought weekly or monthly tickets and who had to pay for alternate transportation when trains were late should get refunds, he said.

"At least that would allow me to defray some of the cost."

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