WASHINGTON – When it comes to reasons why her MARC train is late, Christy Huddle believes she’s heard it all.
A regular commuter on MARC’s Brunswick line from West Virginia to Rockville, Huddle has heard excuses that include everything from the loading of a zoo train to a conductor oversleeping.
“I’ve been given a lot of reasons why the train is late,” Huddle said. “Sometimes, the reasons are not given but it’s evident what the problem is.”
Her experience is not unique: MARC’s systemwide on-time performance fell from 98 percent in January 1999 to 85 percent in July, and it has hovered around that point since. The worst performance has been on the system’s Camden line between Baltimore and Washington, with only 58 percent of trains on time last month.
Terry Demas, who said he has experienced delays of over an hour on the Camden line, called MARC “unacceptable and incompetent.” He and Huddle were among the 11 speakers who criticized the state commuter rail service’s lagging on-time performance at a meeting held Wednesday in Washington.
Officials from the Maryland Mass Transit Administration and CSX Corp., the railroad company that has a state contract to operate MARC, called the meeting to hear complaints and assure passengers that the problem is being addressed. A similar meeting was held Tuesday near Frederick and one more is scheduled Monday in Laurel.
“We recognize this is a serious problem,” said CSX spokesman Rob Gould. “We are committed to working with the state to finding a solution.”
Both MARC and CSX attribute the delays to increased freight traffic on the tracks that are used by commuter trains. Because MARC trains travel over track that CSX owns, passenger trains must compete with slower-moving freight traffic.
“It’s a matter of capacity,” Gould said. “The dispatchers are trying to move both freight and passenger traffic alike.”
But that explanation was not enough for John Barrett, a regular commuter on the Brunswick line from Martinsburg, W.Va. He said passengers are the ones suffering while the capacity problem is worked out.
“We the passengers are being held hostage,” Barrett said. “MARC blames CSX and CSX blames freight traffic.”
But MARC officials stopped short of charging that CSX actively gives preference to freight traffic.
“I don’t think preferences are given,” said Kathryn Waters, MARC’s manager and chief operating officer. “They have made some decisions we’ve disagreed with, but the state has no legal right to use the rails.”
Gould acknowledged that CSX is primarily a freight company, but he said it puts an equal emphasis on safety and on-time performance of both freight and passenger traffic.
“I’m not going to sit up here and tell you freight gets priority,” he said. “The endeavor is to provide a safe operation.”
The state and CSX are currently negotiating a new operating contract for the commuter rail service, and Gould said his company is eager to sign.
While MARC’s conductors and new bilevel trains won praise, speakers complained about the poor condition of stations, inadequate access to parking and a lack of refunds when delays are significant.
Jim Fremont, who commutes from Kensington on the Brunswick line, said that because CSX dispatchers work from Jacksonville, Fla., MARC employees here usually have no idea when a train will arrive.
“The information needs to be more dependable,” Fremont said. “I’m ready to bail from MARC and take Metro.”