Earlier this month, three MARC locomotives failed in a single 90-degree day, turning a routine commute into an ordeal of up to three hours for more than 1,000 passengers.
It was an ominous foreshadowing of what could lie ahead in July and August, the cruelest months in MARC's calendar.
As any veteran MARC passenger knows, July and August are typically the months of greatest torment for the commuter rail service. It is in the summer, when soaring temperatures take a toll on both tracks and trains, that the system is most vulnerable to service meltdowns.
This year, the top official at the Maryland Transit Administration is cautiously hopeful that MARC's performance will be better in spite of persistent problems with heat-stressed electric engines on the busy Penn Line. With a growing fleet of new diesel engines and the return of three much-needed electric locomotives that had been disabled, the agency thinks it has a fighting chance of a better summer ahead.
But MTA Administrator Ralign T. Wells cautioned that temperatures of 90 degrees or more can wreak havoc on MARC and other transit systems.
"Much of transit equipment is definitely fair-weather equipment. You have extreme heat, you have extreme cold, you have extreme problems," Wells said.
Summer is always hard on MARC because of speed restrictions imposed when the tracks become overheated. But last year's hot season was a particularly brutal one for MARC riders because the rail system was reduced to a barely adequate supply of locomotives.
With its new diesel engines mired in a regulatory quagmire and 40 percent of its electric locomotives on the long-term disabled list, MARC was forced to cancel trains or operate them with too few cars on a regular basis. The problems lingered well into the fall before easing.
The experience has left many MARC riders resigned to another ordeal.
"I am not looking forward to the usual summer service problems on the MARC lines," said Penn Line rider Aaron Jones of Halethorpe. "I know that some delays, like those for heat restrictions, are for safety and cannot be helped. But others, like engines breaking down, should be avoidable, and cause the most annoyance for commuters."
Chris Bingel of Hamilton has already been through three locomotive problems in recent weeks.
"My prediction: It's going to be a long, hot summer," he said.
Since resolving a dispute with the locomotive manufacturer last fall, MARC has started to phase in its new fleet of 26 diesel engines. Wells said six are in full service and another half-dozen are undergoing testing. He said they have been operating reliably and have allowed MARC to retire some older diesels on the CSX-owned Brunswick and Camden lines.
MARC has also returned to service three of its four AEM-7 engines, which had been sidelined in an Amtrak maintenance facility for roughly two years each because of electrical problems. Wells said the repaired engines have been performing well on the Penn Line.
"I would like to say it's going to be better in that we have this new equipment," Wells said. "I can guarantee we're going to continue to work hard at this."
But Wells said the system remains vulnerable to heat waves and freight traffic. In particular, he worries about the strain on the electric locomotives pulling nine-car, two-level trains on the Penn Line – a load that pushes the engines' pulling and air-conditioning power to capacity.
"It's still going to be a delicate heat issue," he said.
The performance of MARC this summer could become a delicate matter for Wells' boss, Gov. Martin O'Malley, as well. The governor's expected November opponent, former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., recently suggested that O'Malley has short-changed MARC in terms of investment. And many of the 33,000 MARC riders each day are Maryland voters as well.
State records show that Maryland's investment in the MARC system has increased significantly under O'Malley as the state has plowed money into buying railcars, replacing locomotives, improving stations and expanding parking lots. In fiscal 2007, the last budget for which Ehrlich was entirely responsible, the state spent $101.6 million on MARC. By fiscal 2009, under O'Malley, spending was up to $195.3 million, though that is projected to fall to $162.1 million in 2010.
But for many MARC passengers, the test is not the numbers of dollars spent but the reliability of the system. And in past summers, the system's performance hasn't matched the increased spending.
Rafi Guroian, chairman of the MARC Riders Advisory Council, said "customer service is the No. 1 issue on MARC."
"The MARC train for most [riders] represents the Maryland state government, and that's their interaction with the state of Maryland every day," Guroian said.