A national railroad strike after midnight tonight would disrupt the trip to work for 8,000 Maryland Rail Commuter riders by halting service on two of the state's three MARC lines, transportation officials said yesterday.
Riders on the MARC Penn line, which is expected to remain open between Washington and Baltimore's Penn Station, could find already crowded parking lots jammed earlier and bigger crowds on platforms.
Drivers could discover that their favorite roads to Washington are clogged earlier in the morning. And long-distance train travelers outside the Washington-to-New York corridor may have to scramble to make other plans.
Joseph Nessel, director of passenger services for MARC, said yesterday that a national freight strike, which could be called one minute after midnight tonight, would shut down commuter lines jTC linking Washington with Baltimore's Camden Station and Brunswick in Frederick County.
Both lines are controlled by CSX Corp. and MARC contracts with CSX for train crews, dispatching, ticket sales and maintenance. The Camden line draws about 2,800 riders a day, while the Brunswick line serves 5,200.
Two or three trains, which could carry from 500 to 600 passengers, would be shifted to the Penn line to absorb the displaced riders, Mr. Nessel said.
The Penn line, which normally carries 9,000 passengers daily, can continue operating because the track it uses is owned by Amtrak and the federal rail passenger agency would not be affected by a strike.
But Penn passengers are not reassured.
"I'm going to be driving, because I don't want to run the risk of not being able to make it to work on time in case something should happen," said Kathryn Lawson of Baltimore, who works at the U.S. Information Agency in Washington.
"If the riders of the other trains ride the Penn line, that's going to result in incredible overcrowding," said James Greene of Hanover in Anne Arundel County, a professor of biology at Catholic University.
"The parking lots are already at capacity," he added, saying the lot at the Baltimore-Washington International Airport station generally fills by 7 a.m.
Mr. Nessel conceded "parking will be very tight" at most Penn line stations if there is a strike, though at BWI, the Westinghouse Corp. has agreed to let commuters use vacant space at a lot adjacent to the station.
For Brunswick line passengers, the state Mass Transit Administration was busy yesterday arranging for emergency bus service from Brunswick and Point of Rocks, to run on the regular train schedule if the railroad shuts down. (No bus service is planned for the Camden line.)
Kathleen A. Kohls, a spokeswoman for the MTA, said passengers living closer to Washington should drive or take a bus to a Washington Metrorail station, and Metrorail officials said there was plenty of extra capacity to absorb them.
Edward A. Daniel, a special assistant to Montgomery County's director of transportation, said there currently are hundreds of unused parking spaces near the Metrorail's Shady Grove, White Flint and Silver Spring stations. A Metrorail spokesman said there are about 550 spaces available near the Wheaton station.
Mr. Daniel is advising Frederick-area commuters to leave a half-hour earlier than normal if there is a strike because Interstate 270 could be flooded with additional traffic. "This [strike] in itself will add almost half a lane of additional traffic" during rush hour, he said.
Howard Robertson, a spokesman for Amtrak, said passenger service would not be affected along the Northeast corridor between Washington and New Haven, Conn., because Amtrak controls the track between those two cities.
But service to every city in the country not on that line could be shut down by a rail strike because independent freight railroads control the track. (The Northeast corridor carries 30,700 of Amtrak's 60,000 daily passengers, Mr. Robertson said.)
Amtrak has not tried to make extensive plans for providing alternate service. Mr. Robertson said the unions could elect to strike only selected freight carriers, or strike one set of firms one day and others the next.
The nation's 10 rail unions have said they would not aim any strike at passenger operations.