The little engine that quit

July 09, 1992

The growing popularity of MARC, the state-operated commuter rail service, proves it is a success. But we often get the impression that it is a success despite itself.

This week's outrageous fiasco in which 85 weary baseball fans ** were stranded for more than three hours on their scheduled two-hour train trip back home to Western Maryland from an Orioles game crystallizes everything that is wrong about MARC.

This is not solely the problem of the Maryland Department of Transportation. That bureaucracy, after all, is at the mercy of Amtrak and CSX Corp., whose personnel and tracks make the fleet of commuter trains run. Whenever there is a problem, it usually is a problem with those contractors and not MARC itself. In the eyes of the commuter, however, that makes no difference. MARC is to blame.

In this particular instance, the CSX engineer running the MARC train was ordered by his dispatcher to stop because he had come to the end of his 12-hour work shift, a federal maximum. A replacement was awakened in the middle of the night. He finally arrived one hour and 42 minutes late because he had not been called in early enough. According to a CSX spokesman, "Simply put, a CSX employee made a gross miscalculation of the time they had left on their shift."

There are mitigating circumstances: the Orioles game against the Chicago White Sox went 14 innings, instead of nine, ending )) at 12:16 a.m. Yet the problem with the Brunswick train began not with the late game but with the fact that the 12-hour clock started early for the train's engineer, who himself was a replacement and had spent the first two hours riding a taxi to Brunswick.

Yet the foul-up was inexcusable. The original engineer ought to have brought his shift predicament to someone's attention in a timely fashion so that other arrangements could have been made.

Last year, Congress earmarked $139 million to improve existing MARC lines and for the extension of the system to Waldorf and Frederick. This sizable investment in badly needed enhancements will not make much sense if contractors such as CSX do not give a hoot about providing quality commuter service.

We urge Gov. William Donald Schaefer and Transportation Secretary O. James Lighthizer to start talking to CSX and Amtrak. Better yet, new operating contracts should be considered, with stiff penalty clauses that make it profitable for the outside contractors to keep the commuter trains running on time. Thousands of Marylanders depend on them. So does the state's economy.

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