Premal Shah boarded a 7:15 a.m. southbound MARC train to Washington at Halethorpe for the first time since the start of the pandemic.
The 43-year-old, who works in information technology for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, commuted to Washington by train before COVID-19 prompted many workplaces to close last year and the Maryland Transit Administration to reduce MARC service.
“I drove in a couple of times, and I thought, ‘Let me try it out today,’” Shah said. “I want to go in for a return to normal, and I don’t want to drive.”
He was greeted on a summer morning last month by plenty of open parking spaces at the station and empty seats on the train, as MARC ridership remains down about 90% since the pandemic struck.
While the transit administration anticipates a return to pre-pandemic service at the end of August, transit advocates say it should restore full service now to bring back riders and convert new ones. And transit experts, rider advocates and some state lawmakers want the agency to take advantage of the pandemic’s disruption to consider how to best serve workers with new schedules and destinations.
Acting Maryland Transit Administration Administrator Holly Arnold is confident, based on conversations with employers, that ridership will return after Labor Day as more federal workers wrap up previously postponed vacations and return to their offices.
“We expect that our riders are going to return,” Arnold said. “I don’t have a crystal ball that’s going to say when. But we’re going to continue to monitor our ridership. We’re going to make sure that our service is there when people are coming back.”
MARC runs three lines that carry commuters, many of them who work in Washington for the federal government or in related fields, on largely 9-to-5 schedules. In 2019, the trains carried nearly 9.2 million passengers. But ridership plunged, far deeper than for other forms of transit, during the state of emergency because its core customers could clock in from home.
“The pandemic has totally crushed commuter rail,” said Eric Goldwyn, a transit researcher and professor at New York University.
Some wonder if the effects could be long lasting, as companies experiment with flexible schedules. The federal government is sorting out long-term plans for bringing workers back to offices, while permanently expanding work-from-home policies.
Brian O’Malley, president of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, a rider advocacy group, urges an immediate return to full MARC service. He cited a pre-pandemic report by Christopher Field of the MARC Riders Advisory Council that found about 17% of rush-hour commuters between Baltimore and Washington travel on the Penn and Camden lines.
“As people adjust their commuting behavior, now that more and more workplaces are reopening, they will form new habits,” O’Malley said. “It’s in Maryland’s best interest to restore MARC and MTA commuter bus service back from the pandemic-related reductions before commuters form new habits that choke us with traffic and pollution.”
More flexible workplace schedules could be a boon to Maryland communities if workers who report to the office only on certain days find rail commutes have been made more convenient for them, said Del. Marc Korman, a Montgomery County Democrat.
“It might make it much easier for someone to live in Baltimore but work in D.C.,” said Korman, citing Baltimore’s amenities and lower cost of living. “You may not want to do that five days a week, but if you only have to do that two days a week?”
Maryland officials are following the discussions in the industry, and improved regional connections are part of the transit administration’s long-term plans, Arnold said. But a lack of identified funding is among several logistical hurdles, and MARC schedules aren’t expected to change drastically in the immediate future.
The traditional morning and evening travel peaks have flattened somewhat on the MTA’s local buses, indicating a need for more service throughout the day, the acting chief said. Most MARC trains, however, will continue to be clustered in the mornings and evenings.
“We are still pretty much expecting that we’ll see pretty heavy a.m. and p.m. peaks,” said Arnold.
Christof Spieler, an engineer and urban planner at Rice University in Houston who’s written extensively on rail transit, said he doesn’t necessarily see pandemic-induced changes as a threat to commuter rail systems. He suspects white-collar workers will largely return to their commuting habits, but sees a “perfect chance to rethink what these things are.”
“COVID has just highlighted the shortcomings of the commuter rail systems we were already operating,” Spieler said. Rush-hour schedules don’t work for commuters in the service industry, he said, and there often aren’t viable options for people heading to doctors’ appointments, games or classes.
“If you run a service that is targeted for one kind of trip, that is the kind of trip that uses it,” Spieler said. “There is an option to completely transform what this service is like by spreading out service over the course of the day, by increasing service.”
The MTA is making a few adjustments and looking at options in case typical riders don’t come back. For riders on hybrid schedules, the agency has proposed a transition from weekly transit passes to more flexible three- and 10-day bundles that can be used anytime over the next year, Arnold noted.
Growing and diversifying ridership by expanding into neighboring states is part of the transit administration’s Cornerstone Plan. Maryland officials have discussed future service into Delaware and northern Virginia with counterparts in those states, Arnold said.
Maryland lawmakers earlier this year overrode Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto to mandate that the transit administration start working with Virginia Railway Express and officials in Delaware to expand routes and study potential expansions on the Brunswick Line, which runs to Frederick and West Virginia.
Obstacles include lining up funding for capital investments and operating costs, as well as negotiations over traffic and fees with Amtrak and CSX, which own the tracks.
Virginia began more than a decade ago to create a statewide rail network with dedicated tax funding. It’s struck deals with CSX to replace bridges and expand passenger rail service through northern Virginia and to Richmond. Del. Jared Solomon, a Montgomery County Democrat, cited Virginia’s success as a model for Maryland — and proof that obstacles like track ownership can be solved.
“There is a real opportunity to get transformational investments in the system that could put Maryland on footing with some of the best rail systems in the world,” Solomon said. “The track system is there. We just have to make the investments.”
He pointed in particular to Democratic President Joe Biden’s vocal support for passenger rail and trillions in proposed federal infrastructure spending.
In recent years, Maryland and Virginia rail officials have focused on expanding service through Washington to Alexandria, Virginia, and “what possible investments will be needed to make that happen,” Arnold said, including funding and track availability. That would connect workers to jobs at Washington Reagan National Airport, the Pentagon and Amazon’s HQ2.
“We’re going to really need to look at fare integration, making sure that you don’t have to have two different fare types if you’re getting into Virginia,” Arnold said. “How can we make sure that we’re branding and messaging similarly, and then really coordinating that service? We don’t want to have a MARC train pull in right after a VRE train has pulled out.”
Solutions to such challenges are “neither trivial nor easy,” Spieler acknowledged. But he and other advocates argue the current system is wasteful by letting costly trains sit idle for significant portions of the day.
John Porcari, who served as transportation secretary under Maryland Democratic governors Parris Glendening and Martin O’Malley and was a deputy U.S. transportation secretary in the Obama administration, said he is “very optimistic about the long-term prospects for MARC.”
He helped shape a 2007 plan that called for billions in investments to dramatically expand service, including running trains every 30 minutes throughout the day on the Penn Line and extending into northern Virginia and Delaware. Some of the plan was realized — including adding weekend Penn Line service — but a budget crisis during the Great Recession largely derailed the effort.
Several current infrastructure projects should deliver improvements, Porcari said. They include a $4 billion project to replace the B&P Tunnel in Baltimore with a new set of tunnels between Penn Station, north of downtown, and the West Baltimore station, which is projected to cut travel times from Baltimore to Washington.
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“A 30-minute MARC ride from city center to city center is, in many ways, I think, a game-changer and will spawn a lot of economic development and redevelopment activity,” he said.
MARC riders who have returned want to see more trains running, said Steve Chan, a federal worker and chair of the MARC Riders Advisory Council who resumed his Penn Line commute to Washington five days a week in August 2020.
“We’re hoping for a full schedule, sooner rather than later,” he said. “There are certain riders that really need to be in early. If there is not a train to get them there early enough, they have to drive.”
While adding trains “requires a lot of juggling,” Chan said, expanding MARC service would connect riders to more jobs. A one-seat ride between Aberdeen Proving Ground in northeast Maryland and the Pentagon in northern Virginia, for instance, would benefit Defense Department workers.
“That ability would decrease commute time, and would allow people from farther away from the Pentagon to commute from Cecil County and more northern areas,” he said.
For now, Jane Fraser, a MARC rider since 2009, misses the express trains that used to run in the afternoon and provided a quicker ride home. The 61-year-old waited at the Halethorpe platform on a recent morning after working from home in Ellicott City most of the past year.
Fraser likes the train and hopes to resume riding it “ideally two to three days a week,“ for her job as an exhibit designer at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington. Of the current conditions, she said, “I like that there aren’t so many people. But that’s a luxury.”