By Robert Thomson
Thursday, July 15, 2010; LZ21
The July 4 Dr. Gridlock column juxtaposed letters from MARC and Metrorail riders who were on the bubble about whether their choice of transit was better than driving. Here's one transit rider who has experienced both railroads and prefers Metro -- for the moment.
Dear Dr. Gridlock:
I commute to the District, and when I began working nights, I took MARC from the Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport rail station into Union Station. MARC was closer to home (14 miles one way vs. 20 miles one way to the Greenbelt Metro station), and the BWI station has a covered parking garage. With a monthly MARC pass, the parking was free.
In those days, MARC riders were permitted to ride certain Amtrak trains on a MARC ticket, giving us a train that usually got us to work on time.
In February 2008, MARC and the Maryland governor's office made a big to-do over expanded Penn Line service in the evenings, adding a later MARC train. This was undercut somewhat by their simultaneous cutting of access to the Amtrak train we'd been taking, forcing most of us to leave our homes up to 30 minutes earlier to take advantage of this "new enhancement."
Then the recession hit. By June, MARC made two huge cuts in service. When MARC announced yet more shifting of train schedules to start in January 2009, I could read the writing on the wall: MARC had no interest in serving the evening/night commuters, and I jumped ship for Metro.
That was just in time for the June 2009 Red Line accident and the problems that Metro has had since. For all of that, however, Metro still has it all over MARC. For one thing, Metro seems to understand that it does have a regular, if reduced, ridership in the evening. Although there was talk of reducing late-night trips, Metro eventually chose to increase fares rather than cut service.
This isn't to say Metro doesn't have its problems. But it's still a better deal, hands down, than MARC. And it's more reliable.
Driving is looking more and more attractive with each passing month. But Metro is still the better deal, mostly. As long as it doesn't kill me.
DG: Early in the term of Gov. Martin O'Malley, Maryland announced very ambitious and very welcome plans to greatly improve commuter rail service: The program set MARC on a course to expand and upgrade service while increasing the number of stations. The night-owl service that Hammond describes was a good sign that MARC was committed to this expansion program. After the recession hit, the progress didn't last.
It still could work, but I doubt we'll have 100,000 daily MARC riders by 2035, as the growth plan envisioned. MARC has about 35,000 riders a day now. Metrorail gets more than 800,000 on many weekdays.
Maryland pays to operate both rail systems. Peter Benjamin, the transit authority's chairman and a Maryland representative on the board, pointed out all through the recent budget crisis that Metro was one area of the state transportation budget that was not in line for a cutback.
Cutbacks in service and increases in price are common in tough times. Last year, Maryland drivers complained when the state began charging a monthly fee for the E-ZPass service as its toll revenue declined.
But Maryland can't allow the cutbacks at MARC to turn into a retreat on transit. The landscape for commuters remains the same: The Baltimore-Washington region is going to expand so much that current commuters will hardly recognize it. Even if we greatly increase investment in Metro -- a very iffy prospect -- the subway can't handle that much demand over that much territory. Maryland needs MARC.Manual braking
Dear Dr. Gridlock:
Since the Red Line accident last year, train operators use manual brakes rather than rely on automatic braking, and this makes for rough stops.
Particularly annoying are jarring stops between stations because a train up ahead has not left the station. Why can't trains wait until the next station is clear before moving? The result would be a nonstop ride between stations.
DG: I'm afraid that if trains waited at stations until the next station on the line was cleared, riders would be even more annoyed than they are now, and the rail cars would be even more crowded. There wouldn't be enough trains operating on the lines at rush hours with that amount of open rail.
There's still no timetable for restoring the automatic train controls. That's the way the trains were built to be run. Manual operation, imposed as a safety measure after the June 22, 2009, crash, is always going to be subject to the skills of the operators. But I do think that they're getting better and that there's less lurching of trains now than there was last summer. Do you think that's wishful riding on my part?Praise for big project
Dear Dr. Gridlock:
I live near the Capital Beltway and Little River Turnpike/Route 236 in Virginia. Several times a week, I drive the section of Interstate 495 that is being altered for the HOT lanes. Could I ask you to put a word in for whoever is in charge of logistics and safety, just so they know that at least one person has noticed what a truly excellent job is being done?
I've seen a lot of construction sites, and I know how difficult it is to set them up and keep them neat and safe. Along I-495, every worker I see is safely dressed with a hard hat, long pants, reflective garments and proper shoes. Debris is neatly piled and weighted down and then promptly removed.
All supplies appear to be methodically stacked or piled in clearly marked areas. I have seen practically no loose pieces of paper or plastic blowing across the road and creating a traffic hazard. Even the workers' personal vehicles are usually neatly parked in rows. This is not something that happens by itself. It requires constant vigilance, regular review and systematic reinforcement of safety regulations. It's really quite a remarkable and unremarked-upon accomplishment.
April G. Blum
DG: This is high praise for a highway project so vast in is scope. There are plenty of opportunities for things to go wrong. But my observations about the work supervised by Fluor-Transurban and the Virginia Department of Transportation have been similar to Blum's.