Late Amtrak Night Owl derails punctuality of MARC commuters


May 30, 1994

Intrepid Commuter so rarely hears complimentary remarks from those who commute by rail that the slightest cheerful news sets our heart pounding like John Henry driving spikes.

"You have to hand it to MARC," the caller says.

"How is that?" we ask (obvious questions being our specialty).

"They keep a consistent schedule. The only day my train wasn't 15 minutes late this month was on the day they honored Richard Nixon."

The late president would be so proud.

Alas, it seems that tardiness continues to be a problem for the Maryland Rail Commuter system. The train in question is the No. 511 leaving Baltimore at 7:22 a.m. and arriving in Washington at 8:09 a.m. -- 8:24 a.m. in real time.

The Penn Line train is called The Morning Executive, but its patrons aren't feeling like very important people.

"For many people who work on flexible time, you can't leave for eight hours after you've arrived, so a late morning train delays your evening departure as well," says one caller. "People are very disappointed."

So too are the folks at the Mass Transit Administration who supervise MARC. The 511 has been a headache for them because of a quirk in Amtrak's schedule.

The problem is that the Night Owl, Amtrak's late-night train from Boston that features a layover in New York, often runs late. When that happens, Amtrak delays commuter trains to give the Night Owl priority.

Interestingly, if the Night Owl is on time, there's no impact on the 511. Unfortunately, it has not been on schedule much.

Passengers on the 511 were recently surveyed on whether they'd like to move up the departure time to improve the on-time performance. Only half wanted the change, so the schedule's staying the same.

As we've noted so often, there's not always a lot the MTA can do when Amtrak owns the rails -- besides plead.

Amtrak President Thomas M. Downs "claims to recognize the importance of commuter rail service," says MTA Administrator John A. Agro Jr. "This would seem to present an opportunity for them to demonstrate that commitment."

Guilford light due to change

Some lead. Others lag. They all eventually turn green.

No, we're not talking about food poisoning victims. It's time for another explanation of traffic signals.

This one was precipitated by a recent letter complaining about the traffic signal at St. Paul and 39th streets in Guilford. The writers were westbound commuters frustrated by the left-turn-only lane that leaves only one other lane for traffic going straight.

Recently, they had observed that the signal had changed. What was the difference?

Answer: The left-turn went from lagging to leading. That means that the left-turn gets the green when all the westbound traffic is released, instead of at the end of the cycle.

That can make quite a difference, particularly when you have a high volume of left-turning traffic. Essentially, it clears out the westbound traffic, avoiding the unpleasant possibility of a driver getting stuck in the left lane trying to merge right so he can go xTC straight at the intersection.

At our request, the city Public Works Department performed a survey of the intersection last week. An 11-hour count confirmed that the left-turn lane is popular enough to deserve its own lane. It averaged 178 cars an hour compared with 235 going straight and 34 going right.

But to address the letter writers' complaint, the city has agreed to place warning signs along 39th street to get left-turners in the left lane earlier and extend the lines designating the left-turn lane.

With readers' help, road repairs happen

Chalk up two more triumphs for the Intrepid Commuter.

Thanks to some observant readers, we've spurred the city to make repairs to two rather annoying situations -- a decaying sidewalk on the Monroe Street bridge between Wicomico and Russell streets, and a sinkhole at Windsor Mill Road and Forest Park Avenue.

The deterioration on Monroe Street was getting kind of scary, but crews installed a temporary sidewalk 10 days ago and permanent patching should be completed in a week to 10 days.

The hole at Windsor Mill is at least 6 inches deep and has been covered with a steel plate since late last year. A city public works crew removed the plate and filled the hole this week.

Vanessa Pyatt, spokeswoman for the city Public Works Department, says the metal plate was put in place because the winter weather prevented more permanent repair.

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