Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Interview: Rafi on why MARC should raise fares (Part 3)

Rafi Guroian loves trains. His Facebook profile picture (shown above) demonstrates the pure joy he feels when riding the rails. His blog is dedicated to the subject and he works for Amtrak. He is the chair of the MARC Riders’ Advisory Council.

Earlier this month I met Rafi at Union Station, where we sat down to talk about trains, particularly the MARC system. This is the last installation of my interview with Rafi.

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.

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