MTA plans new schedule for MARC Penn Line

More frequent trains, fewer cars in part a response to breakdowns

February 11, 2011|By Childs Walker, The Baltimore Sun

The Maryland Transit Administration is making wholesale changes to the schedule for the MARC Penn Line, pinning its hopes of reducing rush-hour crowding and locomotive breakdowns on a plan to run shorter trains at more frequent intervals.

The agency said it plans to break its MARC trains into six- and seven-car sets that will carry fewer passengers at once but run more often. With two trains added to both the morning and afternoon peaks, transit officials believe they can add 1,000 seats each rush hour.

"With the incidents last summer and the continuing growth of demand on the Penn Line, we realized that we needed to work to make improvements," said Simon Taylor, the MTA's chief of staff. "We think we can add more seats and greater flexibility."

The changes, some of the most drastic ever made to the Penn Line, are in part fallout from the breakdown of a Baltimore-bound train last June that left up to 1,200 people sweltering for about two hours. Passengers trapped on the MARC 538 train as the temperature onboard rose above 90 degrees began calling 911 and ended up evacuating despite the crew's orders.

A federal investigation of the "hell train" incident said MARC and Amtrak acted slowly in calling in emergency workers. The report said the breakdown exposed a long-standing problem with maintaining power to long, heavy trains in hot weather.

"The changes that the MTA are implementing have been a long time coming," said Rafi Guroian, chair of the MARC Riders Advisory Council, who added that ridership has been increasing but trains have not been keeping up with the demand.

Baltimore commuters heading to Washington on the Penn Line will have two additional trains during the morning rush before 9 a.m., and two more trains will leave Washington for Baltimore between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m.

While the new schedule will benefit riders by easing congestion, Guroian said, it won't necessarily avert breakdowns like those that delayed riders for hours last summer.

"It's important to realize they don't actually know what caused the breakdowns," he said, calling it "a gremlin they are still trying to find."

Taylor said eight- and nine-car trains carrying 1,200 to 1,500 passengers "put a lot of burden on the locomotive."

"That wasn't the direct cause [of the June breakdown], but it was certainly a secondary factor," he said.

MTA officials have spent months hashing through the schedule with Amtrak officials to avoid conflicts with the rail service's regional trains.

The new schedule, expected to take effect March 14, will be released in a Monday e-mail to MARC customers.

Guroian said the only downside is that several express trains are to be eliminated, which will force those commuters to take trains with local service, which take five to 10 minutes longer. But he said MTA officials told the council they would try to add express routes once they know more about ridership in the new schedule.

The MTA also plans to add service to its Odenton station and a train from Washington that would arrive in Aberdeen at 7:42 a.m., both in response to increased demand associated with the U.S. military base realignment and closure process.

Taylor said the changes, pending approval at a Feb. 23 meeting of the state Board of Public Works, would cost about $2 million.

Baltimore Sun reporter Jessica Anderson contributed to this article.

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