MTA apologizes for poor service

Agency chief e-mails MARC customers about delays, promises 'corrective steps'

July 24, 2008|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun Reporter

The head of the Maryland Transit Administration offered beleaguered MARC train commuters an apology and a series of explanations yesterday for what he called six weeks of service "far below what customers expect or deserve."

In an e-mail to MARC riders, MTA Administrator Paul J. Wiedefeld disclosed that on-time performance during June had fallen to 63 percent on the Camden and Brunswick lines, and 81 percent on the Penn Line.

"Although some service disruptions are unavoidable, there were instances where we could have taken actions to reduce the anxiety, frustration and inconvenience that you and your family, friends and colleagues experienced," Wiedefeld wrote.

The MTA chief said he has ordered "corrective steps" and has instructed MARC officials to meet with Amtrak and CSX to analyze recent service disruptions. Amtrak owns the Penn Line, MARC's busiest, which runs between Perryville and Washington via Penn Station. CSX owns the Camden Line between Baltimore's Camden Station and Washington's Union Station, and the Brunswick Line, serving Western Maryland and West Virginia.

MARC has had no catastrophic breakdowns in recent months, but riders have complained of persistent late performance in recent weeks, at a time when the soaring price of gasoline has spurred demand. According to the MTA, ridership in May was 6 percent higher than in the same month last year.

"I notice the trains have certainly been more crowded, and we experienced a few more delays," said John W. McDowell, who commutes to Washington from the Halethorpe station on the Penn Line.

John Walsh of Catonsville, who also commutes from Halethorpe to Washington, said he has noticed problems cropping up earlier in the morning on the Penn Line.

"More and more frequently, you have the 6:08 departure or earlier already in difficulty, so it cascades through the whole day," he said. "It's now to the point where every day you go to the train and you don't know what you're going to find."

In his e-mail, Wiedefeld listed things that have gone wrong on a commuter train line.

* Hot weather taking a toll on tracks and equipment.

* A storm that blew down trees on the Brunswick Line.

* A fuel tanker that overturned on Interstate 95, forcing closure of the Camden Line.

Wiedefeld noted that MARC's fleet of diesel locomotives is 40 years old and "increasingly unreliable," but he told riders that help is on the way - next year. He said MARC has ordered 26 new diesel locomotives and expects delivery at a rate of two a month starting early next year.

Wiedefeld said some of the electric locomotives used on the Penn Line have been out of service for scheduled maintenance, forcing MARC to use older diesel engines.

MTA spokeswoman Jawauna Greene said Maryland has a contract with Amtrak under which the national passenger railroad is obligated to maintain MARC locomotives.

"We are in constant communications with Amtrak about the service," she said.

Mark Magliari, an Amtrak spokesman in Chicago, said he was not aware of specific complains.

"Certainly, if MARC is concerned about maintenance procedures or the timeliness of maintenance, then we'll work with them to satisfy them," he said.

Greene said the problems on the CSX-owned Camden and Brunswick lines are more weather-related than anything else. In hot weather, the freight railroad regularly imposes heat restrictions that slow trains to a crawl as a safety precaution.

MARC might also, to an extent, be a victim of its own success. Because of increased ridership, Greene said, MARC has had to run trains more frequently, with heavier loads and with more cars, all of which put additional stress on locomotives.

With the track and maintenance issues in large part beyond its control, Greene said the area in which MARC could improve was in its communication with customers.

McDowell said it's good to see the MTA chief communicating with customers.

"Whether they believe it or not is another story," he said.

Walsh said Wiedefeld's e-mail shows the MTA is trying to do some of the right things over the long term but that his message holds out little hope of immediate relief.

"It offers you no hope near-term," Walsh said. "That's not going to get me back to my car tonight."

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