Help for Commuter Trains

December 18, 1991

Maryland's commuter rail service is drowning in its own success. So many people are riding the rails between Baltimore and Washington and from Western Maryland to Washington that the Maryland Rail Commuter system (MARC) can't keep up with demand, which has risen 150 percent in five years. On-time service is down; trains are bypassing stations because cars are jammed-packed with passengers. The rail line is in a bind.

Help, happily, is on the way. Leased locomotives are being brought on line. So are 22 overhauled passenger cars. Ten new cars are on order. And in the best news of all, the recently enacted federal transportation bill earmarks nearly $80 million for MARC cars and track rehabilitation. Rail travel for commuters is indeed making a comeback.

Every day, 9,000 people ride MARC trains to work and back. That includes 600 trips from the new Perryville line in Cecil County. One reason for the train's popularity is the relatively cheap fare -- $110 a month between Baltimore and Washington. You can't even park in downtown Washington for that price, let alone pay for gasoline and upkeep on your car. Commuting to work by rail also is hassle-free, leaving the passenger time to catch up on work, read a newspaper or just watch the scenery. And to top it off, rail service is non-polluting.

Yet in recent months, rail travel has been frustrating. Too many breakdowns and delays caused too many commuters to be late. Overcrowded cars took the pleasure out of the journey. And the expansion of service to Perryville exacerbated problems as cars were diverted from other lines.

Before MARC begins further expansion (there is federal money for routes to Waldorf and Point of Rocks in Frederick County), it must upgrade existing service. Otherwise, the rail program will crumble under the weight of its increasing ridership.

Orders for new cars and locomotives are essential. So is adding switches and sidings in the Baltimore-Washington corridor to permit increased capacity. Construction of new parking lots at MARC stations is also crucial to encourage use of the rails.

Maryland is blessed with any number of old rail lines that can be converted to active use. It is far cheaper to build either a commuter-rail line or a light-rail line than a major super-highway. It is also far better for the environment and less destructive of communities along the route. State officials wisely are turning their attention away from new roads toward mass transit. In the 21st century, it could become the preferred mode of travel.

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