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MARC riders struggle with delays, crowded trains

By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 15, 2010; 8:26 PM

After a MARC train stalled this summer and stranded 900 passengers in sweltering heat for more than two hours, transit officials promised to respond faster to breakdowns and to provide more information to customers stuck on disabled trains.

But many MARC passengers say the June breakdown was merely an extreme example of a common and continuing problem. Some passengers say late trains have become so frequent that they no longer consider Maryland's commuter rail service reliable. Two trains that run between Washington and Baltimore on weekday afternoons run late 30 percent of the time, according to MARC data.

"I'm extremely frustrated about the unreliability of the service, a lot of people are," said Paul Matino, a daily Penn Line commuter and member of MARC's Riders Advisory Council.

From May through July, passengers on the Penn Line - which connects Washington and northeastern Maryland through Baltimore - endured 737 delays, the second-highest number for that three-month period in eight years, according to MARC figures. "I've been seeing these trains get later and later over six years," said Rafael Guroian, chairman of the riders council. "It's a clear indication that something needs to be done on the Penn Line."

MARC officials attributed the "hell train" breakdown and other lengthy delays this summer to track work and extreme heat, which taxes electric locomotives and the system's power supply.

But MARC's figures show that mechanical, power and track problems accounted for 25 percent of late trains in the past eight years. Half of all delays resulted from Amtrak and CSX dispatchers holding MARC trains to allow Amtrak passenger and CSX freight trains to move ahead.

The Washington area's rail network provides an alternative to its crowded roads, but train service suffers from its own form of traffic congestion. Crowded tracks put MARC, Amtrak and CSX trains on tight schedules, officials said. Like a rush-hour highway accident, the effect of one disabled train can ripple throughout a morning or an evening.

"When it's good, it's very good," said Bill Smith of Bowie, who was aboard the stranded MARC train in June that left 10 passengers in need of paramedics' help for heat-related symptoms. "But when it's bad, it just falls apart."

Jack Cahalan, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Transportation, said this summer's delays were "a real learning experience" for the Maryland Transit Administration and Amtrak. Amtrak operates MARC's Penn Line; CSX operates the Camden Line, which runs between Washington and Baltimore, and the Brunswick Line, which provides service between Washington and points north and west, including Frederick and Martinsburg, W.Va.

He said that MTA officials have monitored Penn Line delays daily since June and that they meet with Amtrak managers to discuss problems.

"This is a priority item," Cahalan said.

Cahalan said Amtrak's "renewed commitment" to keep the Penn Line moving has produced results. On-time performance increased steadily from 83 percent in June to 94 percent in September, he said.

Plenty of passengers are still late for dinner. The Penn Line's heavily used trains 426 and 538, which run from Washington to Baltimore in the afternoon and evening, have been on schedule about 72 percent of the time this year. For commuters - and rush-hour trains carry as many as 1,400 people - that means getting home late more than one day a week on average.

"There are a couple trains we've identified with issues that we need to work on, but, overall, I'd say service is reliable," said Maryland Transportation Secretary Beverley Swaim-Staley. "I think our transit system is still a good option."

Swaim-Staley called for a top-to-bottom review of Amtrak's MARC operations the day after she was aboard a Penn Line train that overshot a scheduled stop, forcing passengers to ride to the next station and catch a second train.

Growth is a challenge

Maryland transit officials say MARC has struggled to keep pace with its growing ridership - an average of 90 new passengers a month since 2003. In the past eight years, the average number of daily riders has increased by 7,600, or 30 percent, to 32,600, according to MARC data.

The Penn Line absorbed most of that growth. Since 2003, the average number of daily passengers has risen by 5,700, or 37 percent. That growth in ridership coincided with a 63 percent increase in Penn Line delays, according to MARC statistics.

MARC spent $25 million last year for 13 new double-decker rail cars to carry more passengers, officials said. However, longer, heavier trains have added to Penn Line delays because they put more strain on electric locomotives and increase the chances of a breakdown. State and Amtrak officials are exploring the possibility of splitting some longer rush-hour trains into two shorter trains to carry the same number of people in lighter loads, Cahalan said.

The state also spent $100 million recently on 26 new diesel locomotives to replace 1970s-era locomotives on the Brunswick and Camden lines. However, after the "hell train" breakdown, MARC shifted some of them to the Penn Line's longest rush-hour trains because the disiel engines are more powerful than the electric locomotives, Cahalan said. Passengers say those trains break down less often, but Cahalan acknowledges that the diesel trains are slower.

Dependent on others

MARC doesn't operate its trains or control the tracks. The state pays Amtrak $47 million to run the Penn Line and $44.7 million to CSX to run the Camden and Brunswick lines.

Amtrak and CSX also own the tracks, and their dispatchers decide which trains receive priority. As of July, "interference" from Amtrak trains caused nearly 60 percent of Penn Line delays, 37 percent of Brunswick Line delays and 39 percent of Camden Line delays, according to MARC .

Since raising the issue with Amtrak this summer, Cahalan said, "we're seeing more equality in the [dispatch] decisions."

He said the MTA is also working with CSX to reduce interference delays. As of September, the Camden and Brunswick lines have run on schedule 87 percent of the time, according to CSX data. That compares with 91 percent last year and 86 percent in 2008. The contract for operating the Camden and Brunswick lines is currently out for bid, and CSX is not competing.

Some delays are beyond control. For example, a man was struck by a CSX freight train Wednesday, causing hours of delays for MARC passengers and cancellations that extended into the following day.

Preventing delays won't come quickly or cheaply, officials say, because the rail system's capacity is constrained. The problem extends to limit storage areas at Union Station and Baltimore's Penn Station where MARC trains are kept during the day and overnight, an Amtrak spokesman said.

Available track space is dwindling. There have been three tracks between Baltimore and Washington since 1976, during which time Amtrak and MARC operations have expanded greatly, Amtrak spokesman Steve Kulm said.

Plans to add tracks between Washington and Baltimore are estimated to cost at least $719 million, Kulm said.

MARC passengers say making their ride more reliable is worth an investment.

"The system is operating above capacity," said Christopher Field, an electrical engineer and Penn Line passenger for 17 years. "You can't do that with reliability because there's no extra capacity when things go wrong."

Deputy development and transportation editor Luke Rosiak contributed to this report.

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