WASHINGTON – Paula Bolk is giving MARC a second try.
After avoiding the commuter train service for almost nine years because of late trains, she began riding again in January. But she has encountered much of the same.
MARC’s on-time performance fell from 94 percent for all of 1998 to a low of 85 percent last July, before bouncing back slightly. It was worst on the system’s Camden line, where on-time performance plummeted from 93 percent in March 1999 to 58 percent last month.
But Bolk said while MARC may not be perfect, it’s the best alternative to sitting in traffic.
“In the ’80s it was terrific, but now it’s not acceptable,” said Bolk, a Laurel resident who commutes to Washington every day and has experienced delays of over an hour. “But it beats driving.”
That attitude was echoed by other riders interviewed last week at Washington’s Union Station. They accepted MARC’s occasional tardiness with a shrug.
But it has been called “unacceptable” by Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Baltimore, and by state transit officials who are currently locked in contract negotiations with CSX Corp., which owns two of the three railways that MARC uses and operates trains on those lines.
MARC’s on-time performance was fifth-worst of seven major commuter rail lines around the country in 1999, according to data from the rail systems.
The commuter system carries more than 20,000 commuters each weekday on its three lines: The Brunswick line runs between Washington and Martinsburg, W.Va.; the Camden line runs from Washington to Baltimore’s Camden station; and the Penn line runs from Washington, through Baltimore, to Perryville.
Sarbanes and Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Baltimore, have written to CSX and state officials expressing their concern about the consequences of getting commuters late to their jobs.
“Constant lateness causes a problem between employee and employer,” Sarbanes said. “Restoring on-time performance is a very important issue.”
Both Sarbanes and MARC officials charge that CSX — which operates the Camden and Brunswick lines under a state contract that expires in May — favors freight traffic and will often shunt commuter trains to sidings so that freight trains can pass.
“One of our contentions is the consistent bias toward freight trains,” Sarbanes said. “There shouldn’t be a preference.”
The Penn line, operated by Amtrak, has better on-time performance than the other two lines. Maryland Mass Transit Administration spokesman Frank Fulton said fewer freight trains run on that line, and if they do, they operate at night.
“Freight trains move slower, which slows thing down,” Fulton said. “Dispatchers often run freight traffic in front of commuter trains.”
Freight traffic has proved to be the major sticking point in negotiations between CSX and the state over a new five-year contract. Both sides have characterized the negations as intense, but promise a solution is not far off.
“We’re putting pressure on CSX to make them aware of our needs,” Fulton said. “We’re in touch with them daily.”
A CSX spokesman said his company is committed to reaching agreement. But CSX is primarily a freight company, he said, and it is not making a profit by operating MARC for the state.
“What the state pays only covers costs,” said Robert Gould, the spokesman. “It’s an issue of capacity, there’s a finite number of rail lines.”
While the state owns the trains and locomotives, CSX owns the rails on which MARC trains travel and employs the engineers and conductors. Gould said CSX would like the state to help upgrade rails and switches to accommodate more trains.
“We fully expect more freight, and investment is needed to increase capacity,” Gould said. “Investment is both the responsibility of the state and CSX.”
Both Sarbanes and Fulton said the state is willing to work with CSX to make the improvements, but it would like to see freight trains restricted to non-commuter hours in exchange.
Gould says that idea is impractical. “We’ve turned away freight service given our constraints about capacity,” he said.
Sarbanes is pushing MARC to hold town meetings, so riders can express their frustration, and the Maryland Department of Transportation is considering such meetings.
“We starting to organize something,” said Chuck Brown, an MDOT spokesman. “We want to provide our customers with a place to voice their concerns.”
Jim Fox, a regular Penn line commuter to Washington from the Martin State Airport, said he would consider attending such a meeting. Fox said freight traffic has sometimes delayed his commute up to an hour.
But he understands it’s not the state’s fault.
“Overall, (MARC) is not what it should be,” he said. “But it is convenient.”
Fox said another problem on the Penn line involves disabled Amtrak trains. While MARC trains will stop to pick up Amtrak passengers, Amtrak does not return the favor.
Bolk, a rider on the Camden line, said she gets so frustrated some mornings that she gives up and drives herself to work.
But Sarbanes is encouraging riders to stay with the system, saying late trains are inconsistent with the state’s hopes to increase ridership and ease traffic congestion.
“It’s counterproductive,” he said. “It leads commuters not to use it.”
Philip Newkirk said he can live with late trains — as long as it’s not the train taking him home to West Virginia at night.
“There’s obviously a need for improvement,” said Newkirk, who rides the Brunswick line. “But I’m more concerned about getting home on time than getting to work.”