MARC growth plan stalls

The Baltimore Sun

In a setback to its ambitious effort to expand the MARC commuter train service, the Maryland Transit Administration has dropped plans to add weekend service to its Penn Line or midday runs to its Camden Line this summer.

MTA Administrator Paul J. Wiedefeld said last week that the agency has so far been unable to reach agreements with Amtrak or CSX, which own the two lines, on opening up slots in their schedules for the added service.

In September, Wiedefeld unveiled a sweeping 28-year plan to triple capacity on MARC, a system whose growing popularity has led to severe crowding. Among the early goals were adding weekend runs to the Monday-Friday Penn Line service and beefing up the Camden Line's midday schedule within nine months.

Now, nearly a year later, Wiedefeld acknowledged the difficulty of carving out additional capacity. Amtrak owns the Penn Line between Perryville and Washington, while CSX owns the Baltimore-Washington Camden Line and the Brunswick Line between Washington and Martinsburg, W.Va.

The MTA chief said the agency is continuing to talk with the two railroads about adding service and would not rule out the possibility of an expansion later this year.

The stalling of the expansion plan comes as MARC has been experiencing frequent delays and cancellations of trains as a result of broken-down locomotives.

Wiedefeld said one of the issues with Amtrak is that adding weekend runs would create a need for additional maintenance capacity and staffing. Amtrak maintains and operates MARC trains under contract with the MTA.

Tracy Connell, a spokeswoman for Amtrak, said there are no fundamental obstacles to weekend MARC service but that details have yet to be worked out.

"We continue to work closely with MARC, and we haven't encountered any major impediments," she said.

CSX, meanwhile, has had a hard time making room for MARC trains at midday, Wiedefeld said.

Bob Sullivan, a spokesman for the freight railroad, said CSX is holding "cooperative" and "cordial" talks with the MTA in hopes of finding a solution.

"It's not an easy problem to fix," Sullivan said. "The major issue we confront is honestly one of capacity and how do you provide additional service without degrading the service you already have."

"That's when they do a lot of the maintenance of their tracks," he said. Nevertheless, he added, the MTA would continue to push for adding trains to the Camden Line, which is now restricted to peak-hour service on weekdays.

"They've been trying to work with us, but they've also been saying, 'Here are our issues,' " he said.

While continuing to negotiate for additional capacity, Wiedefeld said, he has also been working with Amtrak to resolve some of MARC's service problems. A series of breakdowns prompted the MTA administrator to write a letter of apology to MARC riders last month.

Wiedefeld said the MTA has hired an outside consultant to assess how Amtrak has been servicing MARC's vehicles.

"We have tried to get someone in there independently to see if there's anything we can suggest," he said. He said he expects some improvement this month when MARC gets back two of its locomotives that have been in the shop for required maintenance.

Wiedefeld said he's expecting noticeable improvements after MARC takes delivery of 26 new locomotives in February. He said MARC had been scheduled to receive the equipment three years from now but had found a way to cut the wait to nine months by piggybacking on a Utah train line's order.

"It's going to help with reliability, and it's also going to help with capacity," he said. "We're trying to speed up some other things. We're trying to get coaches sooner."

Amtrak's $3.9 billion long-range plan calls for the eventual extension of service from Delaware to Virginia running seven days a week. The first phase of the plan called for the addition of service on weekends, at midday and later at night by this summer.

The MTA did work out a deal with Amtrak late last year under which MARC added an evening rush-hour train out of Washington's Union Station as well as two-late night runs - one in each direction.

The long-range plan calls for improvements in four stages with target dates of 2010, 2015, 2020 and 2035.

Among other things, the program envisions the replacement of the Amtrak tunnel leading to Penn Station by 2020 and the replacement of CSX's Howard Street Tunnel by 2035. The century-old freight tunnel would then be used to extend the Camden Line.

Expansion of MARC has been identified as a priority because of the need to provide transit services to the thousands of new workers who will move to Maryland as a result of the Pentagon's base-relocation process. Among the sites expected to gain workers are Aberdeen Proving Ground and Fort Meade - both of which are served by MARC stations.

By 2035, the MTA hopes to be able to serve more than 100,000 riders a day, compared with slightly more than 30,000 now.

But, like the addition of weekend and midday service, virtually all of the MTA's goals for MARC will require the collaboration of Amtrak or CSX.

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