Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Full interview: Rafi, your man on MRAC

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. This post includes the (edited) entirety of my interview with Rafi, which I published throughout the past week.

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.

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.

Rafi Guroian interview, Part III: A vision for MARC’s future

Q: What’s the deal with these new engines that were supposed to come on line this spring?
A: There is a lot of red tape, unforeseen red tape from what I understand in getting the new engines on line. We desperately need them. They’re diesel engines, they move 110 miles an hour. They are sleek, they are environmentally friendly, and they’re a lot more reliable than the 30 or 40-year-old diesel engines we’re running right now. A lot of the problems that we have on the MARC today are thanks to these old diesel engines dying sometimes in mid-route. (Read Dresser's post on the delay).

Q: A Camden Line commuter recently asked me how the revenue from MARC ticket sales gets fed back into the system. Do you know if the revenue goes to a general fund or directly to MARC?
A: You’d have to ask MARC how it breaks down. It doesn’t go to a general fund; it goes to operating expenses on the MARC. I think 50% of ticket revenue makes up the service, 50% of state money makes up the service. You know the MARC system hasn’t raised fares significantly in 12 years and because of that that ratio [of ticket sales to state funding] swings more towards state money than ticket money because diesel prices are skyrocketing and the governor has mandated that MARC cannot raise its fares because he doesn’t want to be the governor that raises fares in an economically tough time.

Q: What’s your estimation of how the governor is performing on the MARC system? Do you feel like he’s responsive to the council’s concerns?
A: Yes, his administration has been extremely responsive to the council and we’ve seen a marked upturn in general morale at the MTA since he’s come into office. That said there needs to be a financial commitment from his office if the MARC system is going to grow in line with what the rest of the country is doing and he hasn’t given that yet.

Q: Do you think that there’s enough public support for the MARC? Would you like to hear more from riders?
A: Of course I want to see more, but there’s always support for train travel in general. You’re always going to find people that are open to the idea of taking a train between Baltimore and Washington or maybe Washington and Harpers Ferry if the schedule is convenient, if the price is right, and if the train is comfortable and clean enough. However among the current riders you’ll find a varying degree of activism and it really varies among the branch of the MARC lines.

Q: Can you give me a sense of how rider activism breaks down among the different MARC lines?
A: The Brunswick riders tend to be very, very active in promoting their train. They’re very grassroots. It’s the Brunswick Line that essentially was responsible for putting a fire under the Ehrlich administration and creating the council. The Brunswick Line everybody has their seats. It’s a two hour train ride. It’s down to a science. If you sit in someone else’s seat you’re going to get a look.

The Camden Line is sort of like the middle child. They’re active, but they’re quiet. They speak up when they need to, but for the most part the Camden Line is known as the friendliest of all three lines. I mean you can jump on the Camden Line and everybody is very nice.

On the Penn Line it’s essentially a zoo. On the rush hour trains its standing room only, you can have 400 to 600 standees on the train at any given time and it’s hot and humid in the summer. There are people who show up for that train a half an hour ahead of time and will force their way through to the platform, just to sit on the train for a half an hour just so they can get a seat, which to me sounds completely crazy. If you’re going to take an express train the idea is you can show up and be on the train the minimum amount of time and then be there. So I don’t understand why people do that, but the Penn Line is like that. Everybody just wants to get in and get out and as a result they’re not very active in terms of grass roots efforts. I would like to see, given that the Penn Line outweighs the other two lines in terms of patronage it would be nicer to see more action from that line. I’m saying that as a Penn Line rider too.

Q: What’s the potential for MARC expansion throughout the state, especially if riders were more active in lobbying legislators for increased service?
A: Everybody loves the train, everybody wants to see more trains and I think given the opportunity, if we had a train between Frederick and Baltimore for example you would have a brand new corridor there too. There’s a whole bunch, there’s one from Hagerstown is another big town that could use it. It would be nice- we call MARC the Maryland Commuter Train- it would be nice to include all of Maryland, so have a train that goes to Cumberland for Western Maryland commuters. Maybe out to Oakland from Cumberland. Have another train that goes from Wilmington all the way down to Ocean City. Or another train that goes from Baltimore to Annapolis- that would require brand new tracks- which other states are doing. It would take a marked shift in the mentality of your average Maryland resident, though, for that to happen. There are a lot of Not In My Back Yard NIMBY people that wouldn’t want that to happen.

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


  1. How come the MARC train stations don't even have basic systems to alert riders and others to the status of trains? People are siting at the stations waiting for riders to arrive and have NO status of the trains? There are audio systems in the stations that used to be used to give status and are no longer used? A simple suggestion: put monitors in each station, hooked to Internet and have the control center update the status as each train proceeds through the system....how difficult can this be?

  2. Good question Dave. I will ask around and try to post an answer soon. You can get MARC train service updates by going here: http://www.alerts.marylandmail.com/. The boards in the station tell you whether a train is running late and MARC officials occasionally give information over the PA system about the status of a train. But I agree that it would be more helpful to have the reason why the train is delayed and how long the delay is expected to be on a regular basis.

  3. Jan 27th...a few inches of snow and you get this!! MARC ADVISORY:Due to inclement weather no service on Bruns & Camden Lines.
    The MARC train "service" is a total DISGRACE!! In Europe a few inches like we have would not even slow the trains down let alone terminate the service. I think we should terminate MARC for good since it doesn't work when it is needed most. During inclement weather is when mass transit is supposed to be the backbone of transit.

  4. Hi Dave. I agree in part with your concerns. It's unclear why Camden needed to be canceled, though there were downed power lines on the Brunswick lines last night. Despite running on a "S" schedule or a limited number of trains, my Penn line commute went off without a hitch. Though the last train leaves at 7:40pm out of Union Station tonight, which means I'll have to seek alternative transportation since I work until 8:00pm.

  5. During inclement weather the train and bus system should be the "transportation of choice" for commuters. Instead they are the first to fail!! Does the term "contingency plans" mean anything to MARC? I don't work for MARC but I think I could easily come up with a list of potential failures during a snow storm. Crews should be pre-positioned if necessary so they can easily reach their starting points....etc...etc. This is not rocket science to run a train back and forth to Washington/Baltimore. My guess is that the powers to be are either totally incompetent or the people feeding them with information are also incompetent or both. They need someone who is willing to step up and tell them exactly what is happening. I wish I could get an appointment with the head MARC person and let them hear the truth from someone not afraid of being fired.

  6. As a five days a week MARC commuter I feel your frustrations. And I agree that public transport should be the transportation of choice in a storm, especially given the horror stories I heard from people who drove home last night.

    MARC periodically hosts "Meet the MARC Managers" events where you can air your frustrations, give suggestions, get answers in person with top MARC officials. You can find out about the meetings here: www.mta.maryland.gov.

  7. Where is Rafi Guroian? He apparently is the chair of the MARC Riders Advisory Council (MRAC), an independent organization that acts as a liaison between commuters and the MTA.

    Is he reading this blog and then conveying this information to MARC? Perhaps a tap on his shoulder would be in order...he should be participating in this blog if he wants feedback from commuters.

    Lastly I would be interested in talking to the MARC Managers at their offices where I can talk to them one-on-one. Apparently the Managers who have attended the past meetings at Union Station, still have their heads in the sand otherwise some of the obvious issues would have already been resolved. I want to talk to someone who can actually affect change, not Managers who act like they care.

    Lastly, I was waiting for my wife last night at the Dorsey Station watching the Howard buses. Can anyone believe they simply drove through the parking lot...never even stopped at the bus stop. What kind of stupid system is in place where a bus simply "rounds" the parking lot and never even stops to check for passengers? No wonder no one was in the bus!! If someone was in the station waiting for the bus (out of the cold) they couldn't even run fast enough to catch the bus, since it didn't even slow down giving someone a chance to leave the building and stop the bus. They too are a joke! What I think really needs to happen is I need to get arrange a meeting with the Governor. Either run the "transportation" system properly or stop wasting money pretending you want to run one.