At long last, riding high on the MARC

Railroad: A flurry of ribbon-cutting launches Maryland's long-delayed double-decker commuter service, raising MARC capacity 50 percent.

February 23, 2000|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

Maryland initiated its long-delayed double-decker commuter rail service yesterday, with Gov. Parris N. Glendening, U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes and other lawmakers and officials riding the rails from Baltimore to Washington, cutting ribbons along the way.

The $90 million purchase of 50 double-decker rail cars will increase the Maryland Rail Commuter (MARC) system's capacity by 50 percent. It's a large step toward doubling mass transit ridership, Glendening said.

The old MARC coaches seat 80 to 100 passengers, while the new cars will carry 132 passengers. The ability to carry more passengers without adding cars saves MARC the cost of extending station platforms.

The cars also have more amenities, such as reclining seats, bigger windows and carpeting.

The celebration was not without an undercurrent of tension, however.

Glendening and Sarbanes both sharply criticized CSX Corp. -- which owns some of the track lines -- for hurting MARC's on-time performance.

MARC, which carries 20,000 passengers daily, operates trains from Penn and Camden stations in Baltimore and Brunswick in Frederick County.

CSX owns the tracks for the Camden and Brunswick lines. MARC and the company have been at odds for months over on-time performance. The state has complained that the company has delayed passenger cars to allow more profitable freight trains to pass.

The Camden line, which has experienced most of the delays, had an 87 percent on-time record in November, 81 percent in December and 88 percent through Jan. 24, said Jack Cahalan state Department of Transportation spokesman.

Glendening said the state is "negotiating aggressively" to renew its $17.5 million a year contract for passenger service on CSX, which expired last December.

"They make a profit hauling freight," he said. "People should be treated equally as freight."

John D. Porcari, Maryland's secretary of transportation, said the state is making sure CSX "understands the interrelationship of freight and passenger traffic." It has warned that the company's on-time performance must improve "before we talk about" issues such as freight operations at the Port of Baltimore, he said.

Robert L. Gould, a CSX spokesman, said his company is "doing our best" to move freight and passengers as quickly as possible without favoring one over the other. But since CSX took over Conrail operations last June, its freight business has increased sharply while the capacity of the tracks has remained the same.

"Freight is our core business," he said, arguing that Maryland should invest in new tracks and signal systems if it wants to improve operations on the CSX lines.

In addition to the CSX dispute, the state has gotten tough with the cars' manufacturer, Kawasaki, withholding $3.6 million because they arrived late.

The company had promised the first cars would arrive in ready-to-run condition by January 1997. But the first cars didn't arrive until March 1999, and then failed speed tests. Officials at the Mass Transit Administration, which oversees MARC, refused to accept any of them.

Yesterday, however, smiling Kawasaki officials squeezed onto the train with the politicians and local transit officials to celebrate the arrival of the new cars.

"These are state-of-the-art vehicles," Yasuhiko Ono, executive vice president of the Kawasaki Heavy Industries, the rail car builder's parent company, said at the Union Station ceremony.

Despite the conflict, the day was not without hoopla worthy of a whistle-stop campaign tour.

The William Goffigan Ensemble greeted Glendening, Sarbanes and regular commuters at Penn Station just after dawn with a swinging version of "Maryland, My Maryland," while Mass Transit Administration employees passed out sweet rolls and juice.

Glendening and Sarbanes worked the crowds on the train, accompanied by reporters, photographers and television crews that jammed the aisles. Twice, they left off the train to snip ceremonial ribbons as commuters stared in surprise at the trains and all the commotion.

The high-speed train arrived five minutes early at Union Station in Washington, where a bluegrass trio struck up "Wabash Cannonball." Glendening cut another ribbon, and he and Sarbanes pledged to improve the MARC system's service.

The new cars are "a lot more comfortable," said Frank Jannuzi, who has been commuting from his home in Charles Village to work in Washington for nine years. "It's a smoother ride, and it's cleaner. It doesn't smell."

The roomier seats are "better than anything Amtrak has," said Hubert Williams, who lives in Baltimore and runs the Police Foundation in Washington.

But Amtrak has something MARC ought to look into, he added -- cafe cars.

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