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."

CSX spokesman Robert Sullivan said CSX dispatchers in the Baltimore area are told to give passenger trains priority. However, Sullivan said, when midday track work causes freight train congestion, "sometimes the best thing to do is to move the freight train out of the way to make everything move. . . . Our goal is always to move those commuter trains as quickly as possible."

Upgrades planned

The MTA is spending $50 million to help CSX make the system run more efficiently, Owens said. The plan includes installing equipment in 2011 and 2012 that will give dispatchers more flexibility to direct faster trains around those that are slower or broken down, he said.

CSX's contract to operate the Brunswick and Camden lines ends in June 2012, and CSX is not bidding to renew it, according to MARC officials. MARC is the only commuter rail system that CSX Transportation operates, and the company wants to return its focus to freight rail, Sullivan said. Like some Virginia Railway Express lines, MARC trains will continue to run on CSX-owned tracks.

But MARC passengers say CSX could improve their commutes almost immediately by improving communications on trains, at stations and via e-mail alerts.

Passengers said MARC's alerts are often nonexistent or too late to be helpful.

Brunswick Line rider Palso said he grew so frustrated trying to learn why his train was delayed Tuesday evening that he sent a text message to a friend in Arizona whom he knew would still be at work and could check The Washington Post Web site for him.

Owens said the MTA sends e-mail alerts as soon as possible, although technological glitches might delay them. MTA officials recently heard praise from members of MARC's Riders Advisory Council that the alerts had become more helpful and prompt, he said.

The MTA also sends out delay alerts via Twitter and Facebook. The commuter service recently expanded its call center hours to handle questions, he said. Customers can call 800-325-7245 on weekdays between 6 a.m. and 11 p.m.

"We can't say it enough: [Communication] is a top priority for MARC and the MTA," Owens said.

Early next year, he said, MARC will install new signs at stations that show the next train's arrival in "real time." Brunswick Line stations will be the first to get the new LED signs, he said.

"We've had some problems maintaining our signs," Owens said. "It's a system that needed upgrading."

Stephen Laverty of Brunswick said he waited 20 minutes for his train Wednesday morning before hearing an announcement that it had been canceled.

"I can understand it's a busy system shared by multiple companies, so it's bound to have logistical issues," Laverty said. "It would help a lot if someone just said, 'There's going to be a delay, and here's why.' "

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