Tuesday, July 29, 2008

MARC Train’s Mea Culpa

By Marc Korman.

I recently wrote two posts on the MARC train. In my post, I outlined some of the reforms I felt MARC needed to take before embarking on its planned expansion. Since I spent some time criticizing MARC, I want to also give credit where credit is due. On July 23rd, the Maryland Transit Administration sent the message below to the subscribers to the MARC email alert system after a series of MARC delays:

A Message from the MTA Administrator

For the past six weeks on-time performance for MARC Train service has fallen far below what customers expect or deserve. During June Penn Line trains were on-time 81% of the time; Camden Line trains were on-time 63% of the time and Brunswick Line trains were on-time 63% of the time. Although some service disruptions are unavoidable, there were instances where we could have taken actions to reduce the anxiety, frustration and inconvenience that you and your family, friends and colleagues experienced. Specifically, service was disrupted for the following reasons:

• Rising summer temperatures put additional stress on equipment and tracks, increasing the likelihood of failure;
• A severe storm cut power to the track signals and blew down trees along the Brunswick Line, forcing us to cancel service;
• A fuel tanker overturned on I-95 in Baltimore City, causing fire authorities to close the Camden Line;
• Our fleet of diesel locomotives is nearly 40 years old, and despite a major overhaul 10 years ago is increasingly unreliable;
• Electric locomotives used on the Penn Line have been out of service for a scheduled overhaul, requiring us to use the older diesel locomotives instead and
• Persistent reliability problems with our newest electric locomotives.

We are taking immediate corrective steps to regain your confidence in us. I have directed MARC Operations to review and analyze each recent incident with Amtrak and CSX Transportation, and implement measures to reduce this risk of reoccurrences in the future.

Penn Line customers should know that MARC managers communicate with their counterparts at Amtrak on a daily basis to anticipate and address issues that cause service delays. We are also working closely with Amtrak to improve the reliability of the electric locomotives. An overhaul of our four AEM-7 electric locomotives is nearly complete with the first overhauled unit back in service in early August and the second in service by mid-August.

For customers of the Brunswick and Camden lines, you should know that CSX has recently relocated dispatchers from Jacksonville, Florida to Baltimore which should greatly improve the communication and reliability of the service.

As we have previously announced, MTA has awarded a contract for the replacement of the diesel locomotives, and 26 new units will arrive in Maryland at the rate of two a month beginning in early 2009. Maintenance on the existing units will be enhanced to keep them operating safely.

In the mean time, we will continue to provide real-time information about MARC service using our email notification system. You can also see the current location of any train at www.marctracker.com. To further enhance our communication we have initiated a project to replace the public address system at all stations.

As MARC customers, you deserved better -- a lot better! We regret any inconvenience you have experienced and thank you for your continued support of MARC Train. Over the next several days MARC managers will be available at Union Station to monitor the service and answer your questions.

Paul J. Wiedefeld
My personal experience with these delays was that my Camden line train’s engine broke down, not only delaying my train, but the Penn line train trapped behind us. Luckily, I have an understanding boss. But despite my continued frustration with MARC, I appreciate the Administrator sending a comprehensive message explaining what went wrong and efforts to improve it. The pitch for the MARC Tracker is a bit disingenuous, since the Tracker does not send updates in a timely matter.

MTA needs to keep these updates coming while also making the other needed reforms I outlined previously: improving communications, tackling the operations and maintenance needs of the system, and addressing congestion on the rails.