MARC aims to triple service

28-year plan calls for more trains, track, 2008 weekend runs

September 24, 2007|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun reporter

The Maryland Transit Administration is planning a sweeping expansion of its popular but crowded MARC commuter train service, including weekend runs and additional weekday trains by next year and a tripling of the system's capacity by 2035.

The detailed blueprint, outlined in a briefing by MTA Administrator Paul J. Wiedefeld, envisions a system that eventually would stretch from Virginia to Delaware and have the capacity to carry more than 100,000 riders a day.

The plan, the cost of which would amount to billions of dollars over the next 28 years, would add tracks in areas that are bottlenecks and would increase the frequency of train arrivals. It would bring new interconnections with existing and future transit lines and create a new transportation hub at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.

Although many of the changes would not occur until much of today's work force is long retired, the plan also includes improvements that current riders would see between now and next summer.

MTA's near-term plans include additional trains on the Penn Line, some of which would operate on weekends, and a midday train on the Camden Line.

MARC's Penn, Camden and Brunswick lines now run on weekdays only. The Washington-to-Baltimore Camden Line runs at peak hours only -- a deterrent to potential riders who worry about having to return home early in an emergency.

Wiedefeld cautioned that many of the changes require the assent of CSX Corp., which owns the Camden Line and Western Maryland's Brunswick Line, and Amtrak, which owns the Perryville-to-Washington Penn Line.

But the administrator, a former chief executive of Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, said he has begun negotiating with the two railroads on adding trains.

The MARC service has been growing steadily in popularity in recent years as long-distance commuters have sought alternatives to congested highways and relief from high gasoline prices. Daily boardings, which were fewer than 20,000 in the mid-1990s, now exceed 30,000.

That growth is good news for the MTA and the environment, but not for riders' comfort. The system has only 27,000 seats, and many trains run with passengers standing.

"There are certain trains that are so crowded the conductors can't get through the trains anymore," said Christopher Field, a regular rider of the Penn Line. "Extra seats are more than welcome, and weekend service would be an absolute thrill."

Wiedefeld said the number of riders has been increasing at a rate of 6 percent a year, which he attributed largely to highway congestion.

"We expect this demand to grow," he said.

In addition to crowded trains and overflowing parking lots, the MARC service has been beset by track and equipment problems that have cut its reliability -- defined as arrival within six minutes of the scheduled time -- to about 90 percent, Wiedefeld said. The MTA's goal is to improve that performance to 95 percent or more.

The plan is broken into five stages: the improvements to be made over the next nine months; intermediate stages in 2010, 2015 and 2020; and a long-range plan extending to 2035.

Such long-range plans have been a recurring phenomenon in Maryland transportation. Some have been carried out, but others -- notably Baltimore's planned regional Metro subway system of the 1970s -- have been consigned to history's dustbin as the projected expenses grew.

But Wiedefeld's MARC plan, which he said he drafted at the direction of Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari, has several powerful imperatives driving it.

One is the military's base realignment and closure process -- known as BRAC -- which is expected to bring thousands of jobs to Maryland over the coming decade. Two of the areas that will see the most job growth are Fort Meade and Aberdeen Proving Ground -- both of which lie along the MARC Penn Line.

Another is the obsolescence of the Amtrak and CSX tunnels through Baltimore. The plan envisions a new Amtrak tunnel leading to Penn Station by 2020 and a new CSX freight tunnel by 2035 -- allowing the Howard Street Tunnel, the scene of a near-disastrous fire in 2001, to be converted to passenger use.

MARC has had a sometimes difficult relationship with Amtrak and CSX, neither of which is focused on commuter rail. But Wiedefeld said he expects the two railroads to work closely with MARC on system expansion because all will benefit.

"It has to be done in partnership with Amtrak and CSX," he said.

Over the next nine months, Wiedefeld said, MARC plans a series of improvements in customer service -- including an overhaul of an electronic passenger alert system that now often delivers news of problems hours after the information would be useful. Between now and next summer, he said, he hopes to add 1,500 seats per day. An additional 4,000 would be added by 2010.

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