Stadium trips help MTA work out light-rail kinks

May 11, 1992|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Staff Writer

It was 11:03 p.m. at Camden Yards and here was the night's final score: 35.

Even in the chill air, the top managers of the Mass Transit Administration (MTA) were warmed by the tally. And it didn't even matter that the Orioles had just beaten the Minnesota Twins, 6-2, in a sparkling midweek performance.

The only result that counted was that the bulk of the baseball fans have been boarded on light-rail trains 35 minutes after Twins right fielder Pedro Munoz has grounded to Cal Ripken for the final out of the game.

"Not too bad," said MTA Administrator Ronald J. Hartman, who has spent a dozen such evenings on the stadium's light-rail platform.

To the people behind Baltimore's new Central Light Rail system, the crowds going to and from the new ballpark for the season's earliest games were more than just baseball fans -- they were guinea pigs.

Since April 3, when the MTA began limited operations between Timonium and Camden Yards for Orioles' home games, officials have gotten a chance to tinker, to figure out what works and doesn't work on the trolley system, and make adjustments.

The result: When the first 13-mile light-rail segment opens for full service Sunday, the trains will be more likely on time, supervisors will be able to react to emergencies more readily, and riders will be ticketed faster thanks to the more than 65,000 fans who will have already used the system by then.

"The stadium service is the best thing that happened to us," said Mr. Hartman. "We learned a lot. You can do all the simulations in the world but you need live, breathing people."

But in the process of shuttling an average 3,000 to 4,000 baseball fans a night, it has become clear that not all of the problems of the $446.3-million system can be corrected before the grand opening.

Some are inherent to light rail, a form of mass transit that has been gaining support in cities across the nation.

It is a hybrid between the old-fashioned trolley lines and a commuter railroad with the advantages -- and, some experts claim, the deficiencies -- of both transit modes.

Others are the result of efforts to keep light rail's initial costs down. The lack of parking along the route and occasional overcrowding and slow service are due, at least partly, to budgetary constraints.

"If it had cost too much, the appeal of the system would have declined," said Z. Andrew Farkas, a Morgan State University associate professor and transit expert. "There are trade-offs."

The most obvious difficulty so far has been in handling the crush of baseball fans.

Customers have reportedly waited on light-rail platforms for up to 45 minutes -- and been bypassed at times by inbound trains that were already full. After the games, the MTA has had to use buses at times to supplement the light-rail trains.

The reasons for the crowding are numerous. More than one-third of the system is single-track, which means that northbound trains must sometimes wait for southbound trains to pass and vice versa before entering a single-track section.

As a consequence, trains can be spaced no closer than 15 minutes apart. It would have cost the state $20 million more to lay two sets of track through the entire 22.5-mile system, but officials believe it will cost them even more to go back and add the track now.

A two-car light-rail train can carry up to 400 people, but the most popular stops -- and the only ones with parking -- are at the north end, so inbound trains may fill quickly despite the MTA's policy of allowing seated customers only at Timonium, its busiest station.

Another dilemma has been the ticketing machines. They operate slowly, dispensing one fare at a time, and have had to be supplemented by MTA workers selling tickets by hand for two hours before games.

The ride from Timonium to the ballpark, which was supposed to take 35 minutes, has generally lasted at least 40 minutes and sometimes longer. Even under ideal conditions -- without passengers on board and with clearance given all the way up the line -- the best time recorded so far has been 33 minutes.

And then there have been the minor breakdowns, at least three because of computer software glitches in the rail cars. When that happens, it has meant taking cars out of service. That has compounded the delays.

"Unless there is some way you can speed up the rush-hour trains . . . I fear you are not going to get any converts to mass transit," wrote one irate rider in an April 15 letter to the MTA. "You may even alienate some current riders who are already talking about driving their cars downtown because the light rail is so slow."

To counter these problems, the MTA has been instructing its light-rail operators to work more efficiently, not to stop at stations where there are no customers waiting, for instance, or where no passenger has signaled a stop request.

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