Red-faced Maryland Rail Commuter officials have issued a written apology to riders after admitting that trains broke down, arrived late or were canceled more often last month than at any time in recent history.
And those foul-ups, which included a lengthy delay after a Washington-bound express train ran out of diesel fuel in Bowie, have prompted MARC to offer travelers one-time $5 discounts on weekly and monthly tickets.
"The past few weeks have been one of the worst, if not the worst, performance periods for MARC service," State Railroad Administration officials wrote in a flier distributed to the line's 17,000 daily riders Tuesday evening.
Joseph Nessel, director of passenger services for the State Railroad Administration, blamed the foul-ups on efforts to work the bugs out of the month-old service to Perryville in Cecil County, track work near the Camden Yards stadium site, sheer bad luck and the fact that the track between Baltimore and Washington is approaching capacity.
Mr. Nessel said MARC's on-time service record, normally 92 percent, plunged to "the low 80s." Complaints shot up. "It was very embarrassing," he said.
Although the on-time record has bounced back to the low-90 percent level, he said, there are still problems with delays aboard the new Perryville line's MARC 509.
He said the MARC 509, a southbound morning express, must share track and platform space between Baltimore and Washington with another MARC local and Amtrak's southbound Night Owl. All three trains are scheduled to arrive in Washington's Union station about the same time.
Greg Koontz of Baltimore, who worked until recently for a Washington-based group arguing the side of property owners in environmental debates, said he took an 8:30 a.m. train from Penn Station last month that wound up "down the wrong track when we got to Washington. That delayed us by 15 minutes or so." He said he almost missed delivering materials to a Capitol Hill news conference.
"There was a period of about two weeks when service was very poor,"James Green, a professor of biology at Catholic University, said. "They had some bad luck. . . . But I don't consider that to be serious because they're trying to coordinate far more trains than they have in the past, and it's been much better in the last two weeks."
Mr. Green, who commutes to Washington from Hanover in Ann Arundel County, praised MARC for adding 24 new and rebuilt passenger coaches over the past severalmonths, relieving some its chronic overcrowding problems. MARC's daily passenger load has grown from about 6,500 in 1986 to 17,000.
Mr. Nessel said he expected the problems with MARC 509 to b cleared up by mid-July. It will take that long, he said, to decide what changes in the schedule will solve the problem, figure out a new schedule that will fit in with other train operations and print new schedules.
Track relocation near Camden Yards caused about eight days of delay last month, Mr. Nessel said, butis now complete. That work affected trains on both the Camden line and Western Maryland's Brunswick line because both lines share some engines and passenger coaches.
A Washington-bound diesel ran out of fuel May 6, he said, because maintenance workers miscalculated how much diesel would be required to shuttle an engine around the yard at Penn Station over one weekend. As a result of the incident, MARC has instituted a policy of refueling all Penn line diesels every two days instead of every three.
MARC's most chronic and potentially costly problem is a shortage of track space in the busy rail corridor between Baltimore and Washington, Mr. Nessel said.
"Track capacity is going to come to a point where you should not schedule additional trains on it," Mr. Nessel said. "The situation between Baltimore and Washington is rapidly approaching that."
Dr. Nessel said that while both Amtrak and MARC are studying the problem, there are no formal plans to expand the track.