Friday, August 28, 2009


A friend and retired MARC Penn Line commuter took this photo in 2004 after he had been unloaded from his train and left on a platform with fellow passengers to await a rescue.

I've only heard of a few stranding incidents this summer, the most egregious being back in June when passengers broke windows to escape the heat of a broken down train a few feet short of the Seabrook platform.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Interview: Rafi on the future of MARC (Part 2)

Rafi Guroian loves trains. His Facebook profile picture (shown above) demonstrates the pure joy he often feels when riding the rails. His blog is dedicated to the subject and he works for Amtrak. He is also the chair of the MARC Riders Advisory Council (MRAC), an independent organization that acts as a liaison between commuters and the MTA.

Earlier this month I met Rafi at Union Station, where we sat down to talk about trains, particularly the MARC system. I’ll be posting sections of our interview over the next week on Stuck on MARC.

Rafi Guroian interview, Part II: A voice for commuters of the future

As chair of MRAC since this spring, you’ve been working to give the council more direction so that members can both learn from the MTA about the commuter system, but also make the relationship more of a two-way street so that riders’ views are represented. How’s that process going?
A: I think more and more we’re finding that as a council we’re going to have to straddle the line between real advocacy – transportation advocacy- and also a little bit of lobbying to essentially represent the needs of the perspective MARC constituents.

Q: Lobbying Maryland politicians?
A: Yep, working with Maryland politicians mainly and also lobbying on behalf of the constituents to the politicians and to the MTA and consequently to the governor for added service. Right now the Maryland 35-year rail plan is stalled and even when it wasn’t stalled it was not as ambitious as a lot of people on the council thought it should have been. When you compare it to what’s going on in the rest of the country in rail expansion, it was almost a little embarrassing that we were only talking about extensions, a few miles, and we weren’t talking about any new lines at all. I guess we’re trying to make sure that potential MARC riders of the future, on lines that don’t exist, are represented. Because otherwise there’s no voice for them.

Back to your mission of providing the council with a forward looking mission, I understand that one of your approaches is to look at new housing developments to gauge how you could connect emerging communities with potential future rail lines?
A: I did my own little study [and] came up with essentially a best case scenario for 35 years from now what Maryland could have if Maryland were to adopt a very pro-rail strategy like you see in Illinois or Missouri or California or Virginia for that matter.

Q: I lost my $175 monthly MARC ticket a few months ago and I was enraged when I found out that it’s non-refundable. Has the council brought up this issue with MTA?
A: We as a council have to pick our fights. We’re pushing harder for what we think is the future of ticketing and that’s essentially a proof of payment system similar to the SmarTrip you use on the Metro. We would like to see the state of Maryland move to that. This is a major investment in infrastructure because you have different stations in different areas of the state with completely different scenarios where every station would be a customization job and it’s very, very cost intensive to do that. But it’s been done. It’s been done in California. The Caltrain uses it and it’s been very effective.

Q: I read that the stimulus funding for MARC will go toward a number of surface improvements like replacing the PA system, adding LED lighting, etc. Is anything in the works?
A: Most of it’s going to station improvements. And it’s stuff that you’ll notice, but it’s not huge. No new structures or anything. You’re looking at repairing platforms and repairing lighting, putting in a better messaging system. It’s not anything on the scale of brand new trains coming on line or anything like that.

Q: When I was listening to Obama and Biden tout the high speed rail portion of stimulus money I wondered why they aren’t supporting commuter rails since it’s a very middle class initiative and enjoys increasing ridership.
A: You’ll have to ask them, but I can tell you that any money that goes to high speed rail is almost certainly going to benefit commuter rail that exists or may exist because it’s going to piggyback on that infrastructure. I think your money is better spent on inner city passenger rail improvements, because not only will you cover Amtrak services, but any commuter services that exist are going to be able to run at faster speed. If they don’t exist the environment may be created where they’re realistic where they weren’t before.

Q: So you’re optimistic about a potential piggyback?
A: Yeah. My worry is there’s not enough money. It’s like throwing a little piece of meat into a piranha tank and everybody wants it.

...Tomorrow I’ll post the section of our interview where Rafi talks about his views on Gov. O'Malley's handling of the MTA and what may happen if you take a regular Brunswick rider’s seat.

*Interview conducted and edited by Julia Marsh for Stuck on MARC.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Interview: Rafi, your man on MRAC (Part 1)

Rafi Guroian loves trains. His Facebook profile picture (shown above) demonstrates the pure joy he often feels when riding the rails. His blog is dedicated to the subject and he works for Amtrak. He is also the chair of the MARC Riders Advisory Council (MRAC), an independent organization that acts as a liaison between commuters and the MTA.

Earlier this month I met Rafi at Union Station, where we sat down to talk about trains, particularly the MARC system. I’ll be posting sections of our interview over the next week on Stuck on MARC.

Rafi Guroian interview, Part I: Meet Rafi

Q: Let’s start off by talking about how you got involved in the advisory council. How long you’ve been with the council?
A: Well, some time ago, I guess about three years ago there was a plan to close four stations in the MARC system and there was a grassroots effort to prevent that closing and the end result of that effort was the council, in essence. There was a call for applications that went out and I just filled out an application and got a call and so I was one of the first members of the council.

Q: When did you take the controls as chair of MRAC?
A: I was just elected this last spring so I have another couple of years.

How long have you been riding MARC?
A: I’ve been riding MARC since- regularly since the fall of 2004- so it’s been awhile.

Q: Do you see yourself as passionate about public transportation?
A: Yeah. Although [laughs] within reason. I’ll take the train if I can. I’d much rather take the train than drive to Washington every day. Driving you get frustrated, you know, you can’t sit and read, you can’t sleep, you can’t watch DVDs. I find that I’m able to sustain the commute to Washington for a lot longer and now it’s going on five years. If I’d been driving, I probably wouldn’t have lasted two.

Q: What do you do on the train?
A: Usually I answer emails and play games on my iPhone.

What games do you play?
A: Right now pinball games but I’m an old adventure gamer from the 1990s, so I have a bunch of you know, 'Monkey Island' and stuff like that. They’ve got them on the iPhone now. So I do that. I’ve worked my way through I think every 'Star Trek' series except the original. I do a lot of Netflix. Netlix is the reason I’m able to get through the day sometimes.

...Check back later this week for more on Rafi and MRAC including his views on Gov. O'Malley's handling of the MTA, how to tell a Brunswick rider from a Penn commuter, and why he's optimistic that high speed rail expansion will benefit MARC.

*Interview conducted and edited by Julia Marsh for Stuck on MARC.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Stimulus $$$ for MARC

The Baltimore Business Journal has a fairly detailed breakdown of how State officials plan to use $360 million in stimulus funds to update MARC and Amtrak systems throughout Maryland. (The article is speculative- "if Maryland is awarded the funds"; though it doesn't explain the approval process. Any stimulus nerds out there feel free to post an explanation of the process.) By my rough estimate about half of that money, or $134.3 million will benefit MARC.

MARC's Brunswick Line will be the most direct beneficiary of the funds, according to the BBJ:

"$18.3 million for MARC Brunswick Line signaling improvements. The funding would update railway signaling between Silver Spring and Brunswick for expanded capacity and would improve service reliability on the CSXT Metropolitan Subdivision, serving intercity passenger rail, MARC and freight trains. More indirectly, the funds ($36m) will make your MARC commute less painful by relieving congestion at Union Station, which often account for delays at the end of the work day."

Many of the earmarks are forward-thinking, an element that would please Rafi Guroian, the chairman of MRAC (short for MARC Riders' Advisory Council.) During an interview at Union Station a few weeks ago, Rafi explained his vision for the council: "I guess we're trying to make sure that potential MARC riders of the future, on lines that don't exist are represented. Because otherwise there's no voice for them." While the state's Dept. of Transportation is not proposing studies for new lines per se, it has asked for about $100 million for track expansion and improving safety and capacity on the rails.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Penn Line mess: 1 train disabled, 2 running late

If you're headed home on the MARC's Penn Line tonight, you may want to consider other options. In this heat, one Penn Line train is disabled and at least two others are running about 30 minutes late.

Here are the latest notices from MARC:
  • Penn: Marc 428 is stopped N of Seabrook with a mechanical problem, crew attempting to correct. August 20, 2009 4:38 PM
  • Penn: Marc 428 to transfer psxs to Marc 530, expect 45-60 minute delay for Marc 428 psxs to BWI. August 20, 2009 4:43 PM
  • Penn: Marc 530 will be operating approx 25-35 mins late to Bowie due assisting disabled Marc 428. August 20, 2009 4:45 PM
  • Penn: Due to mechanical problems on Marc 428, Marc 450 (510p WAS Dp) has been cancelled to rescue Marc 428. August 20, 2009 5:04 PM
Judging from past experience, my guess is there will be delays until at least 7:00 p.m. tonight on the Penn Line.

Frustrated with MARC delays? Voice your concerns to the MARC Riders' Advisory Council, which is meeting until 7:15 tonight at the Hall of States on 400 N. Captiol St. NW, D.C. The meeting, open to the public, will be held on the second floor of the hall.

Riders' council to meet today in D.C.

MARC Commuters: The MARC Riders Advisory Council will be holding its monthly meeting today from 4:30 PM to 6:00 PM at the Hall of States building located at 400 N Capitol St NW, Washington, DC (2nd floor).

The rider-governed council will be addressing service issues including an update of ongoing MARC-related infrastructure projects.

Members of the public are welcome to attend.

August 20, 2009 8:28 AM

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Attitude from Penn conductor on lack of Quiet Car

At least once a week I work late and take the 9:00 p.m. Penn Line train home to Baltimore from D.C.

I've wondered for awhile why that later train has no designated 'Quiet Car.' I often read or work on my commute and I cherish the serenity of the Quiet Car.

I asked the female conductor tonight why is there no Quiet Car for train #544?

"There isn't one," she snapped.

I repeated, "I know, why isn't there one?"

She shot me a look as if to say: 'Who are you asking me questions?' And then replied: "Because there isn't one on this train" and turned her back on me.

Ok. Guess I'll have to call customer service tomorrow for an answer.
Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

And the domino effect continues...

With delays stretching late into the night yesterday, MARC's performance today seems only slighty better.

Before 9:00 a.m., the Penn Line canceled one train and experienced delays on three more, attributing the problems to the tardiness of earlier trains. Seems like when these delays begin to mount MARC should have a better game plan to get the schedule back on track.

I'm meeting with the chair of MARC's Riders' Advisory Council (MRAC) today to talk about its advocacy work on behalf of commuters. Email me questions you have for the chair before 1:30 p.m. today: I'll post our interview here in the coming days.
Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

Monday, August 10, 2009

Blank schedule screens and tardy service alerts leave passengers in the lurch

When I arrived at Union Station around 6:30 tonight to catch my 6:40 Penn Line train home to Baltimore the computer screens displaying arrival and departure times inside the station and out on the platform were blank.

I checked my Blackberry and the lastest service alert said that Penn's 6:05 was ten minutes late, but word of mouth concluded that the train would be canceled. No MARC officials were around so I hedged my bets and took the 6:43 Camden instead.

Good thing as I'm just now being informed via email that the situation is totally ?+"*#:

- At 6:37 I received an alert that the 6:05 was cancelled

- At 6:51 I learned that the 6:40 was running 30 minutes behind

- At 7:23 I discovered that 5:55 was taken out of service.

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

Worst day of the year?

Judging by the crowds at Penn and Unions stations in the a.m. and p.m., my inbox full of service alerts, and the cussing of frustrated passengers I'd venture that Monday, August 10 may go down in transit history as the worst for MARC system performance in 2009.

Everything from heat delays to overcrowded trains and mechanical failures plagued the system today. The delays hit all three lines, causing a domino effect of backups resulting in wait times of up to 75 minutes. The bizarro prize for a delay goes to the Brunswick Line where MARC officials said a car was blocking the tracks.

If you take the Camden Line, bring your concerns to MARC managers, who will be meeting riders this Thursday, August 13 at Muirkirk Station between 4:00 and 7:15 p.m.

Here's a rundown of service alerts that piled up in my inbox as of around 7:00 p.m. tonight-

Penn MARC 513 has been cancelled between Perryville and Baltimore due to mechanical problems.The next available southbound train will be Amtrak train #151.MARC 513 will operate as normal from Baltimore to Washington.
August 10, 2009 5:48 AM

Penn MARC 509 is operating approx. 15-20 minutes late approaching Bowie due to mechanical problems. Updates will follow.
August 10, 2009 7:15 AM

MARC 408 enroute to Baltimore expected to operate 20 to 25 minutes late leaving Washington. Updates to follow.
August 10, 2009 7:53 AM

MARC 513 operating 25 minutes late leaving Baltimore due to mechanical problems. MARC 415 operating ahead.
August 10, 2009 7:55 AM

Brunswick/Camden: CSX has issued heat orders for this afternoon, expect 10-15 mins delays.
August 10, 2009 11:42 AM

Camden and Brunswick Line Passengers—CSX has issued heat orders for this afternoon's rush hour. Expect en route delays of 5-15 minutes on all trains. We regret any inconvenience.
August 10, 2009 12:00 PM

Penn: Marc 428 (415p WAS Dp) is expected to depart WASH 10-15 mins late due to adding locomotive.
August 10, 2009 4:03 PM

Bruns: Marc 873 is operating 10-15 mins late approaching Washington Grove.
August 10, 2009 4:18 PM

Train 428 due out of Washington 4:15 pm will be operating 35 - 40 minutes late.
August 10, 2009 4:48 PM

Penn: Marc 439 (525p BAL Dp) has been cancelled due to late equipment, the next available southbound MARC train will be Marc 441 (625p BAL Dp).
August 10, 2009 4:55 PM

Marc 530 will be operating 10-15 mins late moving north due to a heavily loaded train account of Marc 428 running late.
August 10, 2009 4:57 PM

Marc 893 is approaching Kensington operating approx 18 mins late due to heat orders.
August 10, 2009 5:55 PM

Bruns: Marc 893 is holding west of Silver Spring with a CSX track inspector operating ahead. Expect 30-40" delay.
August 10, 2009 6:04 PM

Bruns: Marc 879 is operating behind delayed Marc 893 and will be operating 20-25 mins late.
August 10, 2009 6:06 PM

Penn: Marc 440 (640p WAS Dp) is expected to depart WASH 15-20 mins late.
August 10, 2009 6:07 PM

Camden: Marc 852 (551p WAS Dp) is still in WASH adding a protective locomotive to the train set. Approx 25" late att.
August 10, 2009 6:16 PM

Penn: Marc 538 (605p WAS Dp) in WASH with mechanical techs checking locomotive. Approx 15 mins late.
August 10, 2009 6:19 PM

Penn: Marc 538 (605p WAS Dp) with serious mechanical problems with its locomotive has been cancelled at Union Station.
August 10, 2009 6:37 PM

Penn: Marc 440 (640p WAS Dp) will be departing WASH approx 25-30 mins late and will be operating northbound to Perryville due to the cancellation of Marc 538.
August 10, 2009 6:51 PM

Bruns: Marc 893 Marc 879 Marc 881 are stopped near Randolph Road with an automobile blocking the tracks.
August 10, 2009 6:54 PM

Bruns: Marc 893 is back on the move approaching Gaithersburg approx 75 mins late.
August 10, 2009 7:06 PM

Bruns: Marc 879 is operating 60-65 mins late in the Rockville area.
August 10, 2009 7:07 PM

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Yep, it's a pattern

MARC seemed to be having an above par summer this year with few delays and only one egregious incident.

Until this month. Today marked the second consecutive day of delays on the Camden and Brunswick lines because of the heat (tracks expand in high temperatures forcing the trains to travel at a slower pace). We'll give the MARC a pass on those delays because you can't control Mother Nature.

While the two less traveled lines were sluggish, the more crowded Penn line experienced up to 30 minute delays in both directions. MARC attributed the delays to "mechanical problems" and "late arriving equipment" (I've always wondered why equipment is not already self-contained on the train and often needs to be swapped out).

By the time I headed out of the office tonight my regular Penn line train- sceduled to leave Union Station at 6:40 was at least 15 minutes late- so I hopped on the Camden line's 6:43 departure and we left the station as scheduled. Heat restrictions are supposed to remain in effect until 7:00p.m. tonight so we'll see what time I arrive in Charm City, but we're speeding along so far.

More signs of a dreadful August aboard MARC: Crowded conditions due to shortage of cars on the Camden line. Where are those new trains city and state officials promised months ago?
Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Too hot, too hot, too hot for MARC...

Delays on MARC's Brunswick and Camden lines due to the heat:

"CSX has issued heat restriction orders on the Camden and Brunswick Lines today starting at noon.

August 4, 2009 9:21 AM"

Later messages informed riders that the heat has caused Camden and Brunswick trains to run between 10 and 20 minutes behind. The heat slowdown is expected to continue until 7:00 p.m. tonight. pegs the current DC temperature at 90 degrees , while Baltimore is 89 degrees. I hope this doesn't become a pattern for the month of August.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Dresser: Gov. to ride MARC tomorrow

Dresser at the Sun reports that Gov. Martin O'Malley will ride the MARC from New Carrolton to West Baltimore tomorrow morning to announce the long proposed Red Line that's planned to cross the city from east to west and beef up Baltimore's pathetic excuse for a subway system.

O'Malley is scheduled to make the Red Line announcement in West Baltimore around 10:15 a.m. Unless the Gov. is taking a special train a la Barack Obama he'll probably be on train #414, departing New Carrolton at 9:41 a.m. and screeching into the W.B station one minute shy of his scheduled announcement time. I've never taken #414 but my guess is there are few riders reverse commuting at that hour. I'd love to know about any interactions O'Malley has with customers or conductors on that trip and if he'll address concerns about the performance of MARC while he's busy getting his hands dirty in a new transportation project.

The Gov's press conference also explains this notice sent to West Baltimore commuters on Friday...Mr. O'Malley must be expecting a crowd.

Attention, MARC passengers who use West Baltimore Station--

On Tuesday, August 4, the row of parking adjacent to westbound Franklin Street (Route 40) will not be available. This row will be roped off late Monday night after the last train has arrived.

Please do not park in this row on Tuesday, August 4. Any cars parked in this row will be towed.

In addition, two handicap parking spaces in the first row will be roped off. Temporary replacement handicap parking will be provided in one of the other rows; please look for signage.

This is only a one day restriction; all parking will be back to normal on Wednesday. We regret any inconvenience and thank you for your patience.

July 31, 2009 11:22 AM