Chilly treatment for MARC riders



Of all the customers of the Maryland Transit Administration, none are more vocal than MARC train riders in crying foul over real and imagined service lapses.

Many MARC folks come from a more elevated social strata than other public transit riders, and their expectations are high. Indignities MTA bus riders endure in silence bring protests from MARC passengers. And MARC riders can be quick to point the finger at the wrong people for the unavoidable mishaps that occur when commuter trains share a fragile system with Amtrak and CSX.

But sometimes a MARC rider registers a complaint that goes straight to the heart of issues for which the MTA is fully culpable. So it is with Timberly Wuester of Baltimore.

Last Tuesday morning was a bone-chilling reminder that winter doesn't end in February. Wuester writes that she arrived at the West Baltimore MARC station to catch the 5:32 a.m. train. At the platform, a fellow passenger informed her the train was expected to be 15 minutes late.

We waited and there was no train and no announcement. The PA system is broken. You could hear the click on, but no sound. So, we waited another 15 minutes. Some folks tried accessing MTA's Web site for more information, but they were not posting any worthwhile updates, so we could not get information that way. People started jumping up and down trying to keep warm. Some folks called friends on the train that get on at Penn Station. The word then came from one of those calls that they were going to pass us by. Then the train indeed passed us by, followed about 10 minutes later by an Amtrak train.

Wuester and her fellow passengers waited for the 6:02 a.m. train, but it didn't arrive. Finally, she reported, the 6:24 a.m. train arrived and was overrun with passengers who had been skipped there and in Halethorpe.

"We were treated to an hour in the cold, courtesy of MARC and Amtrak," she writes.

Wuester recounted that when she called the MTA, she was greeted with a snippy: "Did you call just to vent or did you want information?"

Mind you I was not cursing - just trying to impress that leaving folks in the below-freezing temperatures for an hour was inhumane. I certainly didn't hear, "I'm sorry for the inconvenience."

I then talked with a MARC customer service officer and was greeted with the same attitude. I again tried to press on the PA system being broken. I informed the woman I had e-mailed about that same issue back in December after spending 20 minutes in the cold waiting for a no-show train. I again didn't hear, "I'm sorry for the inconvenience."

Wuester writes that the customer service person took her information and passed it up the line. About an hour later she finally received a call from an official who did apologize.

I was surprised that it took so long. I was trying to keep cool, but seriously, the toes on my left foot still hurt from being outside so long standing and waiting.

I have been taking the trains for over 10 years, and it appears to me that the system is going increasingly downhill.

I am stunned that anyone in their right mind would purposefully leave folks standing out in the cold with no shelter for that length of time. "Making up time" can't be a real excuse when a train is already 30 minutes late.

My take: The MTA is not to blame when the trains run late. On the Penn Line, Amtrak rules. When a train is running late, Amtrak makes the calls about stopping at stations. The MTA doesn't get a vote. However, the MTA could do a better job of explaining to customers why trains sometimes pass them by. It should also make sure that neither Amtrak nor CSX are employing arbitrary or dated criteria in making operational decisions.

The MTA is fully responsible for keeping passengers informed so they can decide to huddle in their cars with the heater on or to make alternate arrangements. Keeping the PA system operational at West Baltimore is the kind of basic "system preservation" we've been assured by Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari that the state would continue to fund. It should have never come to this point.

MTA spokeswoman Cheron Wicker said the agency is aware of the PA problem at West Baltimore but has been unable to replace the system because of a lack of money. However, she said the MTA will receive $6.5 million in federal stimulus funds to fix its PA and electronic sign systems and that the work will proceed as soon as the money is received.

The MTA is also responsible for the courtesy of its front-line customer service representatives. Smart-mouthing frostbitten riders is unacceptable. They have a right to vent.

Wicker also said the comments by the front-line customer service representative were unacceptable. "Our customer service reps are trained professionals, and that response should not have happened," she said.

Fortunately, there's a way the MTA can make amends. The day the new PA system is in place at West Baltimore, the agency could call a news conference with its top administrator and the secretary - why not the governor? - and thank West Baltimore passengers for their patience. For her diligent reporting of the problem, and in recognition of her frozen toes, Wuester ought to be an honored guest.

A small gift would be appropriate. Maybe thermal socks?

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