Jim Akers has seen it all on the MARC line this summer: Crowded rail cars. Broken-down locomotives. Trains slowed to a crawl. E-mail alerts that arrive too late to be useful.
"It's been a rough time," said the Ellicott City resident, who commutes to Washington on MARC's Camden line.
Maryland transportation officials concede that MARC performance has suffered in recent weeks, mostly because of heat-related problems. In July, for instance, 82 percent of trains ran on time -- well below the state's 92 percent goal.
The problems have been especially severe on the Camden and Brunswick lines, where the company that owns the tracks restricts speeds for safety reasons when the air temperature exceeds 90 degrees.
But even with MARC's woes, its ridership is up and its riders remain loyal.
"It's still the best way. Even with those delays, you'll get there sooner than if you drive," Akers said.
Like many MARC riders, Akers is involved in a passionate love-hate relationship with the state's commuter rail service. It's a bond that's been tested by delays, cancellations and sometimes-lame excuses.
With its subsidy running higher than state law allows, passengers' patience may soon be further tested with a fare increase. But with gas prices at record levels, it's doubtful many riders would switch to cars.
"Overall, it is a good service. People recognize that it's a good value and they like it," state Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan said.
MARC gives its passengers an estimated 27,000 rides a day on three commuter lines: the Penn Line between Perryville and Washington's Union Station via Penn Station, the Camden Line between Camden Station and Union Station, and the Brunswick Line between Washington and Martinsburg, W.Va., with a spur serving Frederick. Ridership is up from 24,000 in 2003.
In response to recent woes, MARC's management has adopted a strategy that combines profuse apologies with unabashed finger-pointing at its track-owning partners -- Amtrak and CSX Transportation.
"We would like to apologize to our Brunswick Line riders for Friday night's extremely slow trip," said a MARC e-mail to riders Aug. 4. After a long recitation of various CSX's lapses leading to long delays and the cancellation of one train, the MARC e-mail concluded: "We are sorry to have brought your weekend to such a poor start."
The same day brought apologies to Camden Line riders for delays caused by CSX work on the tracks between Baltimore and Washington and to Penn Line riders for a series of locomotive breakdowns. MARC's e-mail was careful to note that Amtrak is responsible for maintenance of the locomotives.
The state-run service, a part of the Maryland Transit Administration, depends almost entirely on the good graces of CSX and Amtrak dispatchers. When the two big railroads' equipment malfunctions, the little commuter railroad's trains run late -- or don't come at all.
With all its problems, many riders say MARC is a terrific bargain and stress-reliever -- at least when it's running on time. But others interviewed on a recent round trip between Baltimore and Washington expressed bitter dissatisfaction.
Jerry Anderson, making his eighth trip on MARC, was not impressed with the service that had made him late for work four times. "They seem to have more excuses than on-time trains," he said. The transplanted New Yorker was commuting from a job in Baltimore to Dorsey. Anderson was still smarting from an incident the previous week in which the train pulled out of Camden Station, then stopped for 45 minutes while a CSX crew worked on the tracks.
"I've never seen anything like that before. In Manhattan, they would have picked you up in a bus," he said. "Here it was just: 'So what? Deal with it.' "
'I'm easy to please'
At the other extreme is Dan Stirk, a lawyer who works in Washington and lives within walking distance of Camden Station in an apartment he couldn't afford in the capital.
"On a very regular basis, the trains are running on time for me," Stirk said before his 6:40 p.m. train home from Washington arrived in Baltimore 10 minutes early. "Either I'm lucky or these other people are unlucky or maybe I'm easy to please and they're not."
Stirk said the Camden Line is seldom crowded and that the cars are clean and well-maintained, even if they aren't new. "This allows me to do a 40-mile commute to work and still not own a car," he said.
Most riders interviewed came down in the middle. Sue Hyman, who commutes from Washington to Laurel on the Camden Line, said service has been "pretty bad lately" but that train travel is still better than driving. "Every day's an adventure," she said. "You don't know if it's going to be on time or if there's going to be switch problems."
MARC commuters have good reason to stay aboard even in bad times. While a round trip between Baltimore and Washington costs $14, a monthly pass can reduce the cost to less than $9 a day -- less than the cost of gas and downtown parking.
And while their auto-bound counterparts are dealing with traffic, many MARC passengers are sleeping, reading or working on laptop computers.
State's costs are up
Flanagan says he can't promise the price of such stress relief will remain the same. The share the state pays to subsidize MARC has crept up to 65 percent. Transit advocates and some riders complain that MARC is at the bottom of the state's transportation priorities. In particular, they point to older rail cars with limited restrooms and passenger capacity.
But Flanagan said the state has allocated more than $100 million for improvements to MARC in its 2005-2010 transportation budget. Among them:
$61 million for a "midlife overhaul" of diesel and electric locomotives.
$25 million for renovations to rail cars.
$29 million for midday storage of locomotives and cars at Penn Station, a vital step in increasing system capacity.
$41.3 million for CSX to increase capacity on the Camden and Brunswick lines and $10 million for Amtrak to increase capacity on the often-crowded Penn Line.
Flanagan said he has been dealing personally with chief executives of CSX and Amtrak to resolve long-standing problems.
"Unfortunately railroads are notoriously difficult to negotiate with," he said. "Amtrak's priority is interstate passenger service. CSX's priority is making a profit off of freight service.
"Our priority is the best service to our commuters."