New Marc Engines Are Still On Hold

July 16, 2009|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,michael.dresser@baltsun.com

When the first of 26 shiny new diesel locomotives for the MARC system was unveiled May 6, it arrived at Camden Yards with television cameras shooting, Gov. Martin O'Malley riding with the engineer and assurances that the $3.5 million powerhouse would be on the rails in four to six weeks.

More than 10 weeks later, that locomotive and two others are still in a CSX maintenance yard, undergoing safety testing. A Maryland Transit Administration spokeswoman said the agency hopes to have the units in service within 30 days but offered no guarantees.

Jawauna Greene, the spokeswoman, said the MTA has found no problems with the diesel engines and that it's just being rigorous in putting the new equipment through its paces.

"It's just been a very arduous process," she said. "Our priority is safety."

But to some MARC riders it looks like another case of the MTA failing to deliver on its promises.

"Any time things like this happen, it just reinforces the feeling they haven't organized things well," said Mark Brusberg, who commutes regularly on the Camden Line between Laurel and Washington.

The first three of the new locomotives will be deployed on the CSX-owned Camden and Brunswick lines, Greene said. Their delivery will permit the MTA to retire some of the older and less reliable locomotives on MARC's busiest service, the Amtrak-owned Penn Line, she added.

When the first new locomotive was presented to the public in May, officials boasted that the new $100 million fleet would help relieve overcrowding and improve service reliability on the MARC lines. At the same time, they were also backing away from an earlier estimate that the first of the engines would be put in service about May 18.

Greene admitted this week that the MTA's early estimates weren't very good ones.

"Things happened. Schedule slippage happens," she said.

Greene said the delays reflect the fact that the MARC safety department is independent and won't let itself be rushed by artificial deadlines.

"Our priority is making sure that any piece of equipment out there is as safe as possible," she said. "We can't compromise safety for expediency. ... For $100 million, we're going to make sure there are no glitches."

So far, she said, none has been discovered.

The MTA had hoped to have all three of the locomotives in service by June 1 - in time for summer, when heat typically takes a toll on some of its aging equipment.

The agency missed the deadline but caught a break as the weather has remained cooler than the typical Baltimore summer. The relative scarcity of days in the 90s has meant fewer service problems on the Camden and Brunswick lines, where trains must slow down when the weather gets hot.

"We haven't had as many heat restrictions this year, and the trains have been - at least for my commute - pretty well-behaved," Brusberg said.

Greene said the MTA is optimistic that the new locomotives will be in service within the next 30 days. Some MARC riders are still skeptical.

"I'll believe it when I see it," said Eric Luebehusen, a Penn Line rider. "Call me a cynic about that."

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