March 31 was a lousy day to observe the travails of life aboard a MARC train.
I took two round-trips - one on the Penn Line and one on the Camden Line - and the rides couldn't have gone more smoothly.
Where was the dysfunctional MARC I'd been hearing so much about?
I was aboard that day as an exercise in making amends. After a recent column implied that MARC riders were a wee bit more persnickety than the typical transit rider, my in-box was flooded with indignant e-mail. One of my more spirited e-mail discussions evolved from ire to mutual respect to an invitation to meet with a group of MARC commuters over a beer. How could I not accept?
On the trip down to Washington, I had the opportunity to chat with several MARC riders. For the most part, they seemed to be delighted with the service, even if it has an occasional meltdown.
"You've got to have a pretty good excuse not to take it," Chris Emery of Odenton said. "People love to complain. You can't beat the MARC train - you really can't."
Aboard the 8:05 a.m. Camden Line train out of Union Station, Quentin Bodkin, 14 months old, was manifesting all the symptoms of ABS - Adorable Baby Syndrome. And the cheerful nature of mother Sheri Bodkin was doing nothing to alleviate that.
"Everybody we talk to on the Camden Line doesn't seem to have any complaints," said the car-free Bodkin, who commutes via Metro and MARC from Silver Spring to Laurel. Quentin hopped up and down on the seat. "My son is in love with the staff. It's a community on this line. It's just really wonderful to be on here every day."
Don't people like that just drive you nuts?
It was with these interviews fresh in my mind that I met up at a brew pub near Union Station with Eric Luebehusen, Mark Brusberg and Tim Kelly for a venting session. All three are savvy folks who understand the limits facing the Maryland Transit Administration in running commuter service on tracks owned by Amtrak and CSX. But each has serious concerns about how the system is run.
Luebehusen, the chief organizer of the get-together, said that 90 percent of the time his daily train ride from Halethorpe to Washington and back is "a wonderful trip."
"My complaint would be when it goes wrong, it goes very wrong, with very far-reaching consequences," he said. "Day care is not forgiving."
Brusberg, who rides the CSX-owned Camden Line, says that when things go wrong on MARC, the MTA doesn't put out the word quickly enough for commuters to come up with a Plan B. And when things do fall apart, he says, the people running the trains seem clueless. "They act like it's the first time it's happened every time it happens," he said.
Kelly, of Arbutus, said he has spoken at length with MTA Administrator Paul Wiedefeld and found him to be "not out of touch at all" with MARC riders' concerns. But Kelly is unhappy with a system in which Amtrak seems to call the shots with no accountability.
I had an opportunity to raise some of the riders' concerns with Wiedefeld about a week later. The MTA chief had some hopeful news for his MARC customers.
Further improvements in reliability can be expected as MARC takes delivery of a fleet of 26 new locomotives, Wiedefeld said. He hopes to have the first of them on the tracks in May and to add two a month thereafter.
Even on the seemingly intractable issue of MARC's organizational model, Wiedefeld holds out hope - though not in the short term. He said the long-range plan to add state track to the system would allow the three-track Penn Line to expand to four and the two-track Camden Line to three. More from Wiedefeld's interview can be found on Getting There: The Blog at www.baltimoresun.com.