“There’s just a lot more trains out on the system than there used to be,” said Joe Swartz, VRE’s chief of staff. “It is not unusual for us to occasionally get caught behind a freight train, and that causes some delays.”
Several MARC and VRE lines operate on tracks owned by CSX. That arrangement has become more of an issue this summer.
On any given day, passengers can wait up to 30 minutes to board their train to work or home. On the very worst days, they’re held inside stopped or crawling trains for a seemingly endless amount of time.
The chronically late service has frustrated passengers for months, with no significant relief in sight. Officials in Maryland and Virginia say they are doing what they can to minimize impacts but warn some problems are out of their control.
“MARC is dependent on our host railroad, CSX, for operations of both the Camden and Brunswick lines,” Veronica Battisti, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Transit Administration, said in a statement. “Service for both these lines has been impacted by CSX freight train prioritization and operational issues.”
MARC’s on-time performance on the two lines that share CSX tracks dropped to an all-time low in July. Trains on the Camden line, which runs from Union Station to Camden Yards in Baltimore, arrived on schedule only 65 percent of the time. Trains on the Brunswick line, which runs between Martinsburg, W.Va., and Union Station, were on schedule only 73 percent of the time — far below MARC’s 92 percent target.
MARC’s Penn line, the busiest in the system, runs on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor tracks and maintains a 91 percent on-time rate.
In both April and May, only about 57 percent of VRE’s trains arrived at their destination within five minutes of the schedule — a significant decline compared with April and May 2018, when 82 percent of trains met their target. Nearly half of VRE’s 704 train trips, which run between Washington, Spotsylvania and Manassas, were an average of 18 to 23 minutes late, according to VRE data. The disruptions improved in June, when 68 percent of trains arrived within the five-minute window, but still fell short of the 90 percent target.
A spokeswoman for CSX Transportation said that information about train volume is proprietary but that she didn’t believe there had been a “year-over-year” increase in trains in the greater Washington area.
The company’s most recent traffic report cites a slight 2.5 percent drop in cargo on its entire network. But the company had said it expected to expand operations on the East Coast and through the Washington region after completing a tunnel reconstruction in Washington last fall.
CSX said it is meeting its obligations with the commuter services.
“We continue to meet our contractual obligations with our partners and work to improve on-time performance, which minimizes avoidable delays,” company spokeswoman Cindy Schild said in an email.
Transit advocates say the congestion problems are all too real and highlight the need for more track capacity, and investments in projects such as a new Long Bridge over the Potomac River to handle more commuter and intercity rail service.
Operational agreements between CSX and the rail services limit the number of trips MARC and VRE trains can run each day and restrict any possible expansion of services. CSX has previously expressed concern about adding other stops or additional passenger trains that would affect efficient flow of freight traffic.
In recent months, traffic congestion has been especially noticeable in Maryland, where CSX dispatches MARC trains operating on the Camden and Brunswick lines and determines whether to prioritize their freight trains over MARC trains, according to the transit administration. From May to July of this year, CSX operations accounted for 77 to 87 percent of the delays on the Brunswick line and 53 to 60 percent of the service delays on the Camden line, according to MTA data.
An email from MARC to a passenger earlier this month said delays on those lines were due to freight traffic increases and an increase in the transportation of “new automobiles from midwestern and southern assembly plants to the rail-auto transloading facility in Jessup.” MARC service alerts frequently cite delays “due to CSX freight train interference.”
Maryland officials said that they are working with CSX operations to maintain the schedule as outlined in their contract agreement and that the issue of prioritizing commuter trains will be a “key focus” in negotiations in the renewal contract with CSX next year.
“We are working diligently with CSX to improve on time performance for our MARC riders,” said Battisti, the MTA spokeswoman.
VRE officials said freight traffic is one of several issues contributing to its operational hiccups. The greatest concern has been the rollout of positive train control, the automatic braking system mandated by the federal government for use nationwide. Delays have been frequent since the program launched in the spring and some system glitches were uncovered, Swartz said.
Fixes and training have helped reduced delays linked to positive train control, with improvements starting in June, Swartz said. But just as those delays were getting under control, heat restrictions kicked in. Commuter trains were forced to reduce speeds because of heat restrictions on 14 of the first 15 days of July. (Heat restrictions require trains to reduce their maximum speeds of 70 mph by 20 mph, adding up to 10 minutes of travel time.)
Flooding restrictions were put in place on the 15th day.
Coupled with what VRE officials say are changes in CSX operations — more freight trains traveling during the VRE hours of operation and more trains in the Interstate 95 corridor they share during the morning and evening rush — the delays have taken a toll.
“Another morning of delays on top of delays & excuses on top of excuses,” VRE passenger CJ Andrews wrote on Twitter on July 16. “The only thing they do reliably is RUN LATE.”
Roger Poor, a Maryland resident who commutes from Laurel to downtown Washington on MARC’s Camden line, says service is so erratic that he takes an earlier train to make it to work on time. On an average day, Poor said, he waits 10 to 15 minutes for a train. But in recent weeks, he has had delays of up to 30 minutes.
“Things got particularly bad a couple of weeks ago when we had heavy rain, but it hasn’t gotten a whole lot better,” Poor said. “I know that there can be delays because of heat. I can understand that. But the delays have been so chronic they are getting very annoying.”
Together, the two commuter systems carry more than 56,000 riders daily. But ridership is on the decline this year.
MARC’s Camden line ridership has dropped 7 percent in the first five months of the year compared with the same period last year. Ridership on the Brunswick line has decreased by 13 percent.
VRE’s ridership is down about 6 percent in the first six months of the year, from 19,102 daily riders a year ago to 18,306 this year.
Ridership can decline for a number of reasons, such as increased competition from other services and telecommuting. But experts say service that is too unreliable and too slow generally drives out passengers.
“You can see people probably are looking for alternatives until we fix the problem,” Swartz said. He said improvements should be coming with the PTC issues fixed and a respite from the heat, leaving only the congestion-related delays.