Working on the railroad

Our view : There are solutions for MARC's woes, just not easy ones

August 12, 2008

Expanding MARC train schedules is not as simple as it sounds. MTA Administrator Paul J. Wiedefeld can't just pick up the phone and tell officials at CSX Corp. and Amtrak how to run their railroads. The agency's growing MARC commuter rail service is a victim of its own success, and what's needed are short- and long-term solutions to overcrowding and delays.

Long-term solutions the Maryland Transit Administration has (at least on the drawing board) - a proposal to invest several billions of dollars to add track and other infrastructure over the next two decades or more. It's a serviceable plan that requires time, effort and (mostly) money.

The immediate challenge is to squeeze more MARC service from existing facilities. MTA had hoped to add weekend service on Amtrak's Penn Line and midday runs to the CSX-owned Camden line this summer. But that's not going to happen because CSX and Amtrak won't agree to terms - at least not yet.

It's understandable if CSX is reluctant to expand service. The railroad makes its money from its thriving freight operations, and more trains devoted to passenger service could compromise those schedules.

Amtrak's situation is also complicated. Weekends are when Amtrak performs much of its maintenance. That sometimes requires shutting down tracks, so while Amtrak may run fewer trains on the weekends, the system's capacity is limited, too. There are also issues of staffing and train storage that an expansion of service may require. Amtrak has been so chronically underfunded that it has plenty of infrastructure needs of its own. Keeping its overcrowded trains running on time is plenty challenging as it is.

The problem isn't foot-dragging on the part of the railroads, it's a matter of crafting a solution to this complex problem that is in the interests of all parties. To do that, Maryland has to be willing to offer carrots and sticks - a greater investment in CSX operations at Baltimore's port, for instance, or a state congressional delegation using its clout to make MARC a greater priority for Amtrak.

If Gov. Martin O'Malley is serious about energy-efficient public transportation and reductions in greenhouse gases beyond some clean-burning buses here or a few ethanol fuel pumps, he needs to continue to push for MARC expansion - and do what's needed to make it happen.

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