The Baltimore light rail had just resumed full service on Monday, Aug. 19, after a month-long outage caused by a broken water main near Camden Yards.
But by Wednesday Aug. 21, the Maryland Transit Administration was alerting passengers to another disruption: “Light RailLink is currently experiencing delays in service due to a disabled train at Westport Station. We are working diligently to restore normal service in both directions and appreciate your patience as we work to do so,” the agency said in a statement.
Light rail service also experienced delays the next day. And the next day. And four out of the five weekdays the following week.
All told, service on the MTA’s light rail or Metro Subway was disrupted on all but one weekday in September, according to a tally of the agency’s service alerts by the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, a rider advocacy group.
The light rail experienced delays on all but five weekdays in September — including delays on five days in a row from Monday, Sept. 9, through Friday, Sept. 13, according to the tally.
The Metro Subway had delays on six of the 21 weekdays in September.
And the Penn-Camden Shuttle, the light rail leg between Penn Station and Camden Station, was delayed 11 weekdays last month.
All three were delayed on Sept. 13, according to the tally.
Eric Norton, the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance’s policy director, said he has been a daily light rail rider for nearly five years. He began tracking the alerts in a spreadsheet after noticing the frequency of delays.
Even when the light rail is running on time, he said, single-car trains pull up to the stations so crowded during peak hours that riders can’t board and have to wait for the next one.
“The sinkhole was disruptive, and I was glad to see the service restored," Norton said. “But there have been so many disruptions since then that it makes me wonder what’s going on.”
Despite the advisories, MTA said its on-time performance for Light Rail was about 90 percent in August and September and 93% in August and 97% for September for the Metro Subway.
“MTA is committed to providing reliable service to all customers on all modes in our transit system,” said MTA spokeswoman Veronica Battisti in a statement.
She said it issues the advisories to help people plan their trips when there’s a problem. Of the 23 service advisories issued about Light Rail, 57% were for mechanical issues, 30% for staffing and 11% for weather or other issues, according to the MTA. Five of the seven Metro Subway advisories were for scheduled track maintenance, while mechanical issues accounted for the other two.
The MTA is investing $160 million to overhaul the Light Rail fleet and $400 million to replace subway cars and signals, Battisti said.
Disabled trains aren’t the only issue. The agency blamed an operator shortage for a Sept. 11 disruption to the Penn-Camden Shuttle, which was reduced to a run between the railroad station and the Mount Royal Light Rail stop, where riders can board Light Rail trains running north or south.
The MTA, which also runs the MARC train service and the regional bus system, estimates it faces a more than $2 billion funding shortfall over the next decade — money that is needed to keep the agency’s transit systems running safely, in compliance with regulatory requirements, and enhanced with new technology and mobility options.
Needs include about $287 million for buses, train cars and other vehicles, $294 million for tracks, $179 million for systems, $403 million for facilities and $372 million for stations, according to MTA’s Capital Needs Inventory, a report required by the legislature.
And the Maryland Department of Transportation’s latest six-year capital budget for the MTA is 10% lower than current spending levels, which the agency attributed to the pending completion of several large projects, including the work on the light rail cars and replacing Metro Subway rail cars and signal system.
Transit only works if it’s reliable, and the reliability of transit depends on a variety of factors, from equipment to traffic enforcement, said Del. Brooke Lierman, a Baltimore Democrat and a transit advocate who is on the Transportation Committee.
"To the extent there are delays due to aging equipment, it’s important that the governor give the MTA the resources it needs to have a more reliable system,” she said.
Norton doesn’t know what has caused the rail service to lag recently, but he said the tally of delays has made the system frustrating and unreliable for riders.