Freight trains weary of commuters Track time: CSX railroad owns tracks and can make more money by not sharing them.

August 02, 1996

WHILE VOICING ITS commitment to commuter rail service in Maryland, CSX Transportation Inc. has been reminding state officials that the game stops if the railroad takes its ball and goes home. This ball comes in the form of the CSX tracks used by both its freight trains and MARC trains hauling Maryland commuters.

The old contract that expired last October pays CSX $15 million a year to run MARC trains on CSX tracks. But there are costs to CSX, including potential liability in the Feb. 16 crash of a MARC train with an Amtrak train in Silver Spring. Eleven people were killed.

CSX is also concerned about the loss of revenue it believes it could generate by running its freight trains through Maryland during daylight hours, which are now reserved for commuter service. The freights are limited to running scheduled service between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m. Unscheduled freight service during the day is risky because of conflicts with scheduled commuter service. In fact, that's one excuse CSX gives for its trains' poor 48 percent on-time rate. In comparison, 95 percent of MARC commuter trains arrive and depart on time.

If companies waiting for an important freight shipment can't count on CSX to deliver on time, they may choose another railroad or even ship by truck. CSX is so afraid of this that it isn't even talking about being paid more money to run MARC trains. It wants more track time.

One discussed idea is construction of a third track on an existing line that would make it easier for both freight and commuter trains to run. But the cost, perhaps $800 million, is prohibitive and CSX is saying it would be up to MARC to pay for it. The railroad's position is that it already has all the tracks it needs in Maryland; it just needs to get MARC off them.

CSX even ties its argument to Baltimore's viability in the competitive seaport market. The railroad is hinting that it won't pay for the larger tunnels needed to allow double-stack train cars to travel to the port unless CSX can increase its daylight track time and gain customers by improving its on-time reliability.

CSX signaled its seriousness by stopping the baseball trains to Camden Yards just before the season, saying the service interfered with freight schedules. If negotiators can't reach a sensible compromise, there may be fewer commuter trains and more polluting automobiles on Maryland roads. It must not come to that.

Pub Date: 8/02/96

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