MARC riders on Brunswick Line endure two months of lengthy delays

By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 31, 2010; 7:42 PM

It's been a rough fall for commuters on MARC's Brunswick Line: Malfunctioning signals, cancellations, track work and congestion caused by lumbering freight trains have led to hours of frustration, late arrivals at work and missed dinners at home.

Since Sept. 7, Maryland's 18 Brunswick Line trains have been delayed 285 times - an average of about eight delays every weekday, according to the Maryland Transit Administration. On two recent evenings, train traffic stopped for several hours while police investigated people who had been struck on the tracks in Rockville. Those delays rippled into the next morning, when some trains were canceled to give crews their federally required eight hours off between shifts.

Nick Palso, who rides the Brunswick Line between Germantown and his government analyst job near Union Station, said delays used to be half an hour or less. But recently, he said, a growing number of major delays have left him wondering, "Are we going to get home tonight?"

As of Wednesday, Brunswick Line trains' monthly on-time performance had dropped to 58 percent, compared with 79 percent for the Camden Line and 92 percent for the Penn Line. One Brunswick train - the first to leave Union Station in the afternoon - has been on schedule 33 percent in October, giving it the worst monthly performance of any train in Maryland's commuter rail system.

The Brunswick Line carries an average 7,600 passengers daily between Washington and points north and west, including Frederick and Martinsburg, W.Va. The Camden Line connects Washington and Baltimore, and the Penn Line runs from Washington through northeastern Maryland via Baltimore.

Penny Frye, a legal assistant who lives in Brunswick, said her fellow passengers are so late to work most mornings that they literally run from the train after it pulls into Union Station. Frye said she wakes up an hour early to catch a 5:30 a.m. train to ensure she gets to the office by 8.

"I understand there will be times when it seems like everything is going wrong," Frye said, "but there never seems to be a time when everything is going right."

Passengers vs. freight

Terry Owens, spokesman for the Maryland Transit Administration, said MTA officials have "an ongoing conversation" with CSX Transportation about late trains. The state pays CSX $44.7 million annually to operate the Brunswick and Camden lines on CSX-owned tracks. The state pays Amtrak $47 million to operate the Penn Line, which suffered serious delays this summer when its electric locomotives broke down on hot days.

At the root of the Brunswick Line problems: "We're dealing with a contractor whose primary mission is to move freight," Owens said.

Many delays in the past eight weeks were beyond the MTA's control, he said, including bad weather and CSX needing to repair and replace track. The track work, which is expected to end this week, made some signals malfunction, which caused further delays, Owens said. The work also has limited freight trains to one track during the day, leaving trains stacked up when the evening commuting rush begins, he said.

One-third of the recent Brunswick Line delays resulted from CSX dispatchers sending CSX freight trains ahead of MARC trains, he said.

"We understand track work has to be done," Owens said, "but we want to make sure our trains are not being delayed unnecessarily for the convenience of freight trains."

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