Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Improving the MARC Train: Part 2

By Marc Korman.

In my last post, I discussed the MARC train and the Governor’s expansion plans. While I applaud Governor O’Malley for his attention to the state’s commuter rail, I have three areas he should focus on before the more radical expansion plans are undertaken: communications, operation and maintenance, and congestion.


To his credit, Governor O’Malley’s MARC proposal does call for upgrading signage, the public announcement system, and the email MARC tracker which supposedly provides updates to MARC train riders. I began regularly riding MARC in August of 2007 and have done so consistently since then, I can see first hand that there has been no improvement in communications aboard the Camden or Penn lines. As a result, the MARC train is inaccessible because many people cannot tell which track their train is located at in major stations, what the costs are, or when the train is at their stop. For regular riders, the email tracker does not send messages when a problem first arises, so it is of little value in planning an alternative route or delaying their departure to or from work. For those on the trains, the PA systems do not usually work so unless a kind conductor announces the problem by shouting in the train, you are left in the dark as to the cause of the delay and how long until it might be resolved. Also problematic, the conductors seem to rely on cell phones to stay in touch with the dispatcher. Not an effective means of communications on a noisy train.

MARC could do a few things better immediately to improve communications and accessibility. First, it needs to empower MTA employees to quickly and promptly send out email alerts. Sitting on the 5:15 Camden line train to DC in a long delay, I already know the train will not be into Union Station on time for the passengers departing on the same train from DC scheduled for a 6:40 departure, yet the email alert is not sent out until much later. That can be easily resolved.

MTA can also make the train schedules more honest. Although the Union Station to Camden ride is scheduled for one hour and twenty minutes, it usually takes only an hour. The inflated schedule allows MTA to doctor its statistics, a common occurrence with all transportation carriers. Schedules should be altered immediately so that the times are listed honestly, even though it will decrease MARC’s on time arrival rate.

In the long term, MTA needs to improve signage at stations to help passengers find their trains, fix rail car intercoms, and figure out a better approach to conductor/dispatcher communications.

Operations and Maintenance

Another major problem with the MARC train is the constant delays. There are multiple reasons for these delays, but one is simple wear and tear of train lines that have existed since the 1800s. Tracks need to be fixed, switches upgraded, and new train cars furnished. But the money for much of this is simply not available. What limited funds are available are spread thin across many transportation needs. MTA’s budget of approximately $720 million annually is split between MARC, bus service in Baltimore City and Baltimore and Anne Arundel Counties, and Baltimore’s rail service. Combined, MTA is responsible for over 93 million trips annually.

I have previously discussed the need for more transportation revenue. An increase in the gas tax is politically unlikely right now. Another option is to explore further partnerships with the federal government, especially since the proposed expansion of MARC service is partly in response to BRAC. Federal funds already account for 1/7th of MTA’s budget, but our state leaders need to explore further funding.


A third major problem facing MARC is congestion. Two of the MARC train lines are controlled by CSX, a freight railroad. Freight rail has seen a 26% increase in use over the last decade, meaning CSX’s tracks have seen an increase in usage for freight. CSX, unlike Amtrak, is not obligated to contract with Maryland to allow MARC to operate, but does so anyway. Although that should be appreciated, the increase in freight and CSX’s ability to control its own tracks means that MARC trains operate as second class citizens on the rails.

Before more trains are added, MTA needs to sit down with CSX and come up with better working agreements to keep both commuter and freight traffic moving. That may involve changing MARC schedules, but also requiring more predictability in freight traffic.

The MARC Train can be an invaluable way for Marylanders to travel, but until the fundamentals of communications, operations and maintenance, and congestion are in some way addressed, plans to increase and expand service are premature.