Caution, tips for MARC trips


July 28, 2008|By MICHAEL DRESSER

So you've just said goodbye to your job in Baltimore and have accepted an exciting new position in Washington. The nation's capital beckons, but not its inflated real estate market.

You want the best of both worlds: D.C. pay and prestige, Baltimore ambience and affordability. And being a smart cookie, there's no way you're going to pay the exorbitant cost of driving to Washington and parking there every day.

Sounds like you're a perfect candidate for MARC.

Not so fast, hotshot. Commuter rail isn't for everyone.

Take it from Len Sipes, former public information officer for the agency that runs Maryland prisons, current spokesman for a Washington-based organization he prefers not to name, and veteran Penn Line commuter.

"If you're an A-type personality who likes a lot of control over your circumstances, MARC is not your cup of tea," he told me as he recounted the most recent indignities inflicted by the MARC system.

For at least six weeks, Sipes, like tens of thousands of MARC riders, has been enduring one of the system's periodic rough patches. On MARC, that means schedules that become exercises in wishful thinking, cattle-car conditions on some trains, near-riots at Washington's Union Station, trains that pass riders at stations without even a wave from the engineer, broken-down equipment, overheated tracks and conductors who haven't a clue what the problem is or how long it's going to take to fix it.

You know, the usual stuff.

Before you board your first train, there's something you should know about MARC: It's not any kind of business you're used to.

You see, nobody really runs MARC. Officially, it falls under the purview of the Maryland Transit Administration, and last week it was MTA Administrator Paul J. Wiedefeld who issued an abject apology for the system's recent failings. But in the short term, he has about as much control over whether the 5:20 p.m. train departs Union Station on time as Barney the Dinosaur.

The tracks MARC runs on? They're not MARC tracks. Amtrak owns the Penn Line. Its top priority is intercity rail. CSX owns the Camden and Brunswick lines. Its priority is the kind of freight that doesn't whine about getting home late.

The conductors aboard the MARC trains, whether surly or sweet, are Amtrak employees. So are the operators running the trains and the mechanics maintaining the locomotives.

When a MARC train gets held up in Perryville, it's not a MARC employee making the call. It's an Amtrak dispatcher. And if a late-running train is told to bypass Savage, it's CSX doing the telling.

So understand, prospective MARC rider, that you're not just giving up control when you board the train. You're giving up control to an agency that doesn't have a lot of control itself.

That doesn't mean the MTA doesn't serve a role. It's responsible for breaking the bad news when stuff happens - an area where improvement is needed - and catching the flak from stranded, overcrowded, delayed, perturbed, inconvenienced and otherwise abused riders. It's responsible for begging and wheedling CSX and Amtrak. And when things get bad enough, it's the job of the MTA administrator to abase himself before his customers in a rite of repentance. Last week's e-mail was a gold-star grovel - but still not enough to appease riders.

So with all this sorry stuff to apologize for, MARC's business is plummeting, right? Not quite. If Yogi Berra were describing MARC, he'd put it this way: "Nobody rides them trains any more. You can't get a seat."

That's because when it does work, it's a great commute.

"Ninety-seven percent of the time, the MARC system is safe and reliable," Sipes said.

But, oh, that 3 percent.

Before you board, know this: There will be meltdowns. Several times a year, with no warning, the system will grind to an excruciating halt and there will be nothing you can do except get on the cell phone to home and work and convey your own pathetic excuses. There will be days when you get to work four hours late. There will be nights when you come home to a cold dinner of steamed spouse.

If you can't deal with life's sewage spills without popping a blood vessel, MARC's not for you. A sense of humor is essential safety equipment. An ability to achieve a Zen-like trance on a stalled train is a big plus.

Also essential is the right workplace. If you arrive faithfully on time every day for months, but your boss goes ballistic the one day you drag in late, MARC isn't for you. (But neither is that job.)

Just as important is the right home life. If you arrive at Union Station to find a mob scene on the platform, will your beloved understand if you have a few beers and catch a later train? If not, you'll need to choose between MARC and the partner. (Take MARC.)

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