I was not on the "hell train" that stalled outside Washington this week, but as one who has ridden the state-run transportation system since the day it took over from the old Baltimore Transit Co., I have a few tart observations.
In those decades, I watched nearly all my peers abandon city public transit. The line that I began riding in 1959, which once had buses about every 15 minutes in the morning, has been slashed to seven morning trips a day. There is no weekend service.
The on-time reliability of Baltimore's buses is shaky, although I have noticed some improvement in the past few months. I get the feeling there is not much attention focused on the beleaguered bus rider. I see much more enthusiasm for transit-building initiatives such as the proposed Red Line light rail expansion. For every tardy bus I seem to encounter, I spot a new parking garage rising in downtown Baltimore.
It's not all bad news. I observed enormous expansion in commuter rail service as the state made Washington easier to reach with its MARC rail service. Daily commuters fill Penn Station. Stops at Halethorpe and Edgewood were once tiny. Now hundreds of people board there. I would often be among the three or four people who stepped from a train at Perryville. The Cecil County town is now a major destination, unthinkable in 1978 when I first started venturing there by rail. People seem to at least want to try public transit.
What blew up Monday was more than a broken locomotive. The event, in which passengers were stranded in a sweltering train, exposed the same lack of interest in customers that I've experienced over the years. I think back to a few months ago when I was waiting for a bus that never came.
Technology has changed the way the transit customer relations-accountability game is played. Cell phones empower a fuming rider with a way to ask on-the-spot questions. Standing there on a corner, as you await that bus that is long overdue, you can call a telephone number, that never-changing MTA line: Lexington Nine-Five Thousand. You call and make your case. The voice at the end of the line thanks you. Nothing happens. No explanation. E-mails and BlackBerrys provide more access. They also have a way of leaving a digital trail. You can copy elected officials, as well as their political opponents.
I thought that maybe I was impatient or unrealistic. Then I heard from an old friend, Clinton Bamberger, the former dean of Catholic University's School of Law and an Inner Harbor resident. He rides the No. 11 bus, a line that nearly passes my home. He tells me he has e-mailed "15 complaints and compliments to the MTA and never had a reply." Finally, he told his story to transit advocate Tom Wilcox, and only then did he hear back from the transit people.
I've been taking buses in Baltimore for more than 50 years, and I've also been taking them in other places. So why is it that Philadelphia's SEPTA system operates so well? The trains, buses and streetcars are full and remarkably reliable. New Jersey Transit seems to blanket the state with service. Maryland, on the other hand, does not even run a MARC train on a weekend.
Maryland has been promoting itself as this great, green place to live with adequate public transportation. OK, governor, prove it to me.
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