MARC to launch new Penn Line schedule

MTA hopes added trains will relieve crowding, lateness

March 13, 2011|By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

The Maryland Transit Administration will launch a new schedule Monday on its Penn Line, adding eight trains to the timetable in an effort to alleviate overcrowding and improve on-time performance on the Amtrak-operated line.

The new schedule, which has been planned for more than a year, is intended to relieve some of the strain on MARC's locomotive fleet by using smaller train sets running at more frequent intervals.

MTA spokesman Terry Owens said MARC officials have been meeting with riders at Penn Line stations since Feb. 28 and have received a generally favorable reaction to the changes. The Camden and Brunswick lines, operated by CSX, will not be affected.

The plan will add two morning peak and two evening peak trains in each direction. In both cases, one of the new trains will run between Washington and Baltimore while the other will run between Perryville and Washington.

Rafi Guroian, chairman of the MARC Riders Advisory Council, said the new schedule is a positive step that will help relieve crowding on Penn Line trains. But he expressed skepticism about whether it would be as effective in preventing breakdowns.

According to the MTA, the new schedule will add five stops at Martin State Airport and seven at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.

One of the Washington-Baltimore trains will be a limited-stop train to Odenton during the evening rush hour. Owens said the additional service to Perryville is intended in part to help accommodate increased traffic to Aberdeen Proving Ground expected as a result of the Pentagon's base-relocation process.

Satisfaction with the plan hasn't been universal, Owens indicated.

"I think the folks up in Perryville would like to see a little more service up there," he said. But Owens said MTA officials decided they need to concentrate MARC's resources in the Baltimore-Washington part of the route, where the demand is heaviest.

Owens said one of the purposes of the revised schedule is to ease some of the strain on the locomotive fleet, "especially the electrics trying to haul those nine-train-car sets."

The Penn Line has been plagued by frequent locomotive breakdowns in recent years — especially during the heat of summer. One of those breakdowns last summer led to the so-called "hell train" incident, where passengers on a stalled Penn Line train were stranded for more than two hours in hot cars before emergency responders began to evacuate them.

Guroian said he doubts whether the new schedule will have much of an effect on on-time performance. He said he has seen no evidence that heat and heavy trains are the reason behind the Penn Line locomotive breakdowns in recent years.

However, Guroian said the changes should go a long way toward improving passenger comfort.

"The new schedule, I'm convinced, is going to alleviate a lot of that standing-room-only for a lot of people," he said. That standing, he said, poses a significant safety hazard in the event of a train crash, he said.

Guroian said he's not expecting everything to go smoothly at first.

"It's going to be a challenge for Amtrak dispatchers to keep everything running on time in the beginning," he said. "I'm sure there are going to be some growing pains."

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