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Transportation has its problems no matter which way you commute

By Robert Thomson
Sunday, July 4, 2010; C02

Two transit riders are on the bubble about whether the rails in the D.C. area are a better experience than the roads.

The first letter notes that the suburban rail passenger often comes out the loser in the Maryland Transit Administration's difficult relationship with CSX, which operates MARC's Brunswick and Camden lines, and Amtrak, operator of the Penn Line.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

MARC trains are notoriously unreliable. For me, it's about the only alternative to driving in traffic (I-270), so I have tolerated it. But as you have emphasized over the years, alternative means of commuting have to be competitive in performance and convenience before people will get off the roads and use them.

I have been taking the Brunswick Line from Point of Rocks since 1998, and it has been a frustrating and disappointing experience. Many of the delays are brought on by freight-train congestion and faulty signals that are not MARC's responsibility. But these are recurring problems that CSX seems unable to improve.

MARC needs to vastly improve its lines of communication and rapport with CSX to have any chance at improving service. Perhaps the encouragement needs to come from the top.

Until the recent flap with the Penn Line, Maryland transportation officials have ignored the problems with MARC. I wonder how many MARC commuters have abandoned MARC because of its apparent insoluble problems. I know ridership is up, but that may be only because more people are trying MARC than leaving MARC.

MARC's potential as a viable alternative to driving seems to be largely squandered. The Penn Line, the train from Baltimore, is the flagship line, and its track record is appreciably superior to the Brunswick Line's.

Amtrak may be a better caretaker than CSX. But if the Penn Line begins to encounter the intractable problems that bedevil the Brunswick and Camden lines, MARC will find itself in an untenable situation.

-- Jim Roan, Frederick

Better than driving?

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I commute from Forest Glen to Foggy Bottom, taking the Red Line to Metro Center and then switching to the Orange or Blue lines. Wednesday morning, I waited a rather long time for a train at Forest Glen -- longer than the usual five or six minutes between rush hour trains.

The train I eventually boarded was crowded. It then took nearly an hour to reach Metro Center. We were slow and go all the way, with no indication of what the delay might be, other than "train will be moving shortly." I arrived at work more than a half hour later than my normal time.

Returning home, I encountered another Red Line mess. I arrived at Metro Center to find a packed platform. The displays on the platform did not indicate when the next train might arrive. I waited from about 5:57 until about 6:17. All the while, disgruntled people continued to crowd the platform. When a train did finally pull up, it was packed. There was barely room for people to exit the train onto the platform before the waiting passengers surged onto the train, squeezing in until the doors were closing on them.

Again, no indication as to why there was no train for 20 minutes in rush hour at one of the busiest stations in the system.

This is what will drive people away from Metro. I understand it's expensive. I understand that they need to raise fares and are politically constrained and cannot force participating governments to do more. Good, dependable transit is not cheap.

And yet, neither is driving. Metro (and maybe you) need to do a better job at communicating how much it costs to drive, park, get gas, insure and repair a car, and waste time waiting for malfunctioning traffic lights vs. waiting for a train to "be moving shortly."

There has to be a better way.

-- Peter Howard,

Silver Spring

It is hard to tell what that better way would be. Transit should take much of the anxiety out of a commute. That certainly wasn't true for Red Line riders on Wednesday, when they were slowed by breakdowns on seven trains between 7:30 a.m. and 7:13 p.m., according to Metro's daily service report.

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer's name and home community. Personal responses are not always possible.

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