Fixing MARC

Our view: There's no excuse for the commuter line's dismal service

July 27, 2008

Maryland's rail commuters may appreciate a personal apology from the Maryland Transit Administration for delays and overcrowding on its MARC trains, but what they need is for the line to run on time and with enough cars that passengers don't feel packed in like cattle.

MTA Administrator Paul J. Wiedefeld e-mailed commuters last week to express regret for recent service he called "far below what customers expect or deserve." He also outlined what went wrong - heat-stressed tracks and equipment, power outages and reliability problems with the fleet's locomotives. Still, he left commuters to wonder exactly what the MTA planned to do about it.

To be fair, MARC's options are limited by the fact that it's not a completely independent actor. Though MARC owns its rolling stock, the trains are operated and maintained by Amtrak staff. Ditto for the tracks MARC trains use, which belong to Amtrak and CSX. When problems come up, MARC can only monitor the work it's hired Amtrak to perform.

Is this any way to run a railroad? Apparently it's not that unusual. Amtrak has similar arrangements with commuter rail services around the country that are owned by regional transit authorities. This month, for example, the managing director of the commuter line in San Francisco wrote a similar apology to customers for many of the same shortcomings MARC riders are enduring.

But with gas prices soaring and more people turning to mass transit as an alternative to driving, MARC trains are in demand. The MTA can't just throw its hands up and expect people to tough it out. Nor can Baltimore market itself to Washingtonians or to newcomers from soon-to-be-closed military bases in New Jersey and Virginia if it doesn't have reliable rail service. MARC says it's buying new locomotives this year that will cut delays and adding more cars to accommodate the increase in ridership. That's a start, and the sooner the better.

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