MARC riders say problems stretch beyond 1 bad day

Maryland transit officials say MARC has struggled to keep pace with ridership, which in eight years has increased  30 percent.
By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 16, 2010

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.

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