MARC commuter trains called victims of their own success A jump in riders means delays, too few cars.

December 09, 1991|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,Evening Sun Staff

George Lavdas tells unpleasant stories about rush-hour service on Maryland Rail Commuter trains.

Like the time a train got stuck in a Baltimore tunnel for two hours, prompting a claustrophobic passenger to break a window.

Or the times people were packed "like cattle" in the small compartments between cars.

Or the times the state-operated MARC trains ran late from Baltimore's Pennsylvania Station to Union Station in Washington, the route Lavdas travels to his job at the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Lavdas wishes the state had improved MARC service before extending its Penn Line northeast from Baltimore to Perryville in Cecil County 10 months ago.

"Perryville is the straw that broke the camel's back," the Bolton Hill resident said. "It diverted trains away from where they were more needed."

Jeffrey G. Shorba, who also rides MARC from Baltimore to Washington, agrees. The state "put a lot of money toward opening service to Perryville instead of putting the money into making the service better," he said.

MARC Service Director Joseph Nessel confirmed Lavdas' stories, but he said the problem is overall growth, not the extension of service from to Perryville.

MARC has become a victim of its own success, as its Monday-through-Friday service has struggled to keep up with tremendous growth, he said. The system currently handles almost 18,000 passenger trips a day on its three commuter lines to Washington. That represents a 150 percent increase in the last five years.

The state has had trouble getting approval and funds to buy rail cars and locomotives fast enough. "What hurt us is that the system has been growing faster than we can acquire equipment," Nessel said.

Meanwhile, on-time service has suffered. A train is considered to be on time if it arrives no later than five minutes after the scheduled time. The trains now run on time 90 to 93 percent of the time, compared with a 95 percent average previously, Nessel said.

Lavdas said he does not believe the on-time statistics, however. "There's no way they have a 93 percent on-time record. They play with the statistics," he said.

The near future holds "glimmers of hope" for improved service, Nessel said. By next month, the agency plans to put leased locomotives into service and return to the fleet 22 cars that had been out of service for overhaul and maintenance.

One reason the problem-plagued MARC remains popular is its bargain-basement fares, which are made possible by an $8 million state government subsidy this year.

That subsidy is the difference between $20 million in operating costs and $12 million in fares collected.

Lavdas and Shorba are among the 4,800 people a day who ride the Penn Line, which shares tracks with Amtrak trains.

A separate Camden Line takes MARC passengers between Baltimore's Camden Station and Washington along CSX tracks. A third line stretches from Washington to Brunswick, southwest of Frederick.

Lavdas said he buys a $110 monthly pass to ride MARC between Baltimore and Washington, traveling 80 miles round trip every work day. In an average month with 21 work days, that comes to only $5.24 per round trip, or about 6 cents a mile.

By way of comparison, if he were to take Amtrak passenger-rail service, he would spend almost four times as much. MARC "is a great deal for the consumer," he said.

A monthly MARC ticket between Perryville and Washington, the end points of the Penn Line, costs $176, or $8.38 per round trip. That's about 5 cents a mile.

Monthly passes include large discounts and are more economical than the daily rates.

The Perryville, or Penn North, extension has brought new riders to MARC since May. The four stops in Baltimore, Harford and Cecil counties attract 250 riders who make 500 trips daily, Nessel said. Those 500 trips represent five percent of the 9,550 trips taken on the Penn Line in October.

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