Monday, July 14, 2008

Improving the MARC Train: Part 1

By Marc Korman.

As gas prices rise, it is expected that more people will take mass transit to get to their destination. In Maryland, one option is the commuter rail system, MARC Train. Can the MARC train handle increased ridership?

The MARC train system is managed by the Maryland Transit Administration. 30,000 rides are taken daily along its three different lines, 200 miles of track, and 42 stations. This is 3,000 more daily rides than what it claims its current capacity is.

MARC train is actually a strange hybrid created by the state in the 1970s and 1980s. As the B&O Railroad and other rail lines sought to get out of the passenger rail business, Maryland began partnering with private companies to keep the service running. In the early 1980s, MTA created the MARC brand to unify the three Maryland commuter rail lines, although the state only owns the rolling stock (train cars and engines) and some of the stations. Today’s Camden line, running from Union Station in DC to Camden Yards in Baltimore, and Brunswick line, running from Union Station out to Frederick and Martinsburg, are actually operating through an agreement with CSX. The Penn Line, which runs from Union Station to Penn Station in Baltimore, operates through an agreement with Amtrak. 60% of MARC’s funding comes from fares and the rest from the state’s over subscribed transportation trust fund and other miscellaneous sources.

Almost one year ago, in September of 2007, Governor O’Malley proposed an expansion of the MARC system. The far reaching plan takes a long view of the MARC train, planning ahead until 2035. The expansion plan calls for adding more trains during the day, initiating weekend service, improving and replacing rail cars, improving stations by fixing signage and making transfers to non-MARC trains smoother, and adding new stops and stations, partly to help move Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) related employees, as Maryland has a big influx of employees coming due to structural changes in US military bases. The plan would cost $4 billion in capital costs between now and 2035 and added operations and maintenance costs of $91 million annually. Unfortunately, the plan does not explain how any of these goals would be funded.

I applaud Governor O’Malley for his attention to the MARC train. But in my next post I will discuss some of what the Governor and his Transportation Secretary should consider before undertaking their effort.