Riders say train service on wrong track; MARC improvements, expansions listed as key to stopping delays


LAUREL -- Angie Reaves may be no expert on the rail industry, but it doesn't take one to see why Maryland Rail Commuter service trains have been hit by chronic delays of late.

"You have so much freight," said Reaves, who watches each day as her trainful of passengers bound for Baltimore is held up by a trainful of cars, hazardous materials and orange juice. "The tracks that are there can't handle it."

They can't, and that's what state transit officials and representatives from CSX Corp., which operates MARC's Camden and Brunswick lines, told angry passengers last night at a public forum in Laurel. Complaints -- such as tardy trains that are making commuters late for work or dinner -- are being taken seriously, officials said, but little will change until tracks in the Baltimore-Washington corridor are expanded or improved.

Trains have run consistently behind schedule since last summer, when CSX took over part of the Conrail Freight System. The company underestimated the extent to which traffic would increase after the takeover -- it went up by 60 percent on the Camden line and by nearly 40 percent on the Brunswick line. As a result, many of the 38 MARC trains that use those rails have been held up, often waiting for freight trains to pass.

On the Camden line -- which shuttles passengers between Washington and Camden Station -- MARC trains were on time 58 percent of the time last month, an all-time low. The on-time rate hovered between 70 percent and 85 percent during the past 10 months after being above 90 percent for much of 1998 and early last year.

"We are dedicated to improving this service," said John D. Porcari, Maryland transportation secretary. "We take this very seriously."

Then the door swung open to public comment. Reaves, a personnel officer in downtown Baltimore who commutes each day from Laurel on the Camden line, said after routinely waiting more than a half-hour for trains last month, she decided to start carpooling temporarily.

"I think they can do a better job with solutions than offering me to stop riding," she said.

Eugene Peterson, a U.S. Department of Transportation employee who commutes from Laurel to Washington, said his boss is getting frustrated. "I feel like the boy who comes to school saying, 'The dog ate my homework,' " he said. "It's hard to keep telling your boss the train was late."

One rider said he frequently calls MARC's toll-free number from the train and never gets through.

Another rider, Bryan Howard of Laurel, said in the past five weeks his 6: 19 a.m. train, the second departure of the morning, has only been on time twice. "I'm fortunate enough," Howard added. "The first train was late enough I could catch it."

Efforts to improve service

Last night's forum, held in the banquet hall of a Quality Inn, was the third in a series sponsored by MARC at the urging of Maryland's two Democratic senators, Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski. MARC held meetings in Frederick and in Washington.

"We're hearing from our customers that they don't believe we are aware of the delays they are experiencing," said Mass Transit Administration spokesman Anthony Brown. "Quite frankly, we are."

Brown said MARC is doing everything it can to make commuters' lives better. Next month, maintenance along the Camden line is expected to force more delays and MARC plans to operate bus service between stations, Brown said.

Passengers have complained that freight trains are being given preference on the rails.

CSX spokesman Robert L. Gould said rail dispatchers favor neither freight nor passenger trains when making spur-of-the-moment traffic decisions. He added that his company, which has been losing profit since the Conrail takeover, is also facing angry freight customers riled that their deliveries are frequently late.

"The MARC service is not a money-making venture for CSX," Gould said. "That said, we have a contract with the state and want to provide the best service we can. But there are 38 passenger trains running which, were they not there, we'd have the capacity to run our freight business."

'We have reached capacity'

The MTA and CSX are negotiating a two-year operating agreement they hope to complete by May 31. Gould said if service is to improve, MARC and the state will have to agree to pay for major track improvements. He said that in Virginia, where CSX operates commuter trains and the state has contributed more money to track improvements than in Maryland, on-time rates are consistently about 95 percent.

"We are not crying wolf," said Gould. "We have reached capacity. In order for us to grow our business and their business, the status quo will not do."

It also won't do for Chris Pendleton, a secretary who commutes from Laurel to Baltimore and said she often arrives in Laurel in the evenings well after 6: 05, when the train is supposed to pull in.

"I would like to have a bit of a life and get dinner made," she said. "I've often called my husband from the train and said, 'Find it and eat it. I'm not a happy camper.' "

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