MARC Trains Off the Track

October 05, 1992

In spite of its rising popularity, the Maryland Rail Commuter system needs an overhaul. In the past few months, its commuter trains have been badly off the track. Too few arrive on time. Personnel have been downright hostile. Ancient equipment has broken down with no back-ups available.

It's been a mess. MARC's booming ridership growth -- it has tripled in less than seven years, to 19,500 riders a day -- hasn't been accompanied by management improvements.

Though the state has invested $150 million over two decades, the train fleet was never fully modernized. Some cars are 40 years old; three self-propelled train sets are despised by both passengers and state officials; there are no backup cars or engines on many days -- an intolerable situation. There's never been a long-term needs assessment.

There's also serious operational confusion. The state owns the equipment but two private railroads with marginal interest in local commuters run the trains -- Amtrak on the Penn Line between Perryville in Cecil County, through downtown Baltimore and on to Washington; and CSX Corp., which operates the Camden Line between Baltimore and Washington and a line from Brunswick to D.C.

Big changes are in the works. For the first time, MARC is manning a customer service booth at Washington's Union Station, a key terminus; a permanent booth, and an operations center, will be set up to provide full ticket service and up-to-date reports on MARC trains.

In mid-summer, MARC was placed under the Mass Transit Administration. The system's director was bounced. MARC intends to lease 10 more cars and three more locomotives soon, with the goal of removing all self-propelled trains. CSX officials now are promising better service -- and better manners from its conductors. Quality circle meetings between work crews, the MTA and CSX are being held for the first time.

New federal transportation aid provides an unprecedented opportunity for MARC to buy efficient trains and locomotives. The MTA wants to double the fleet size, including the addition of bi-level passenger cars, starting this fall. Parking, another headache at MARC stops, also will be expanded.

As more and more commuters flock to MARC for the convenience, it is crucial that the system deliver vastly improved service. Modern equipment is essential, but so is the human element. A better-run railroad should be the chief goal. Let's get the trains back on track -- and on time.

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