Thursday, April 29, 2010

MARC Trainmaster never has a typical day

Though some sympathetic commuters might expect that Dave Johnson, who supervises the Penn and Camden Lines on MARC, frequently has what Alexander of the famous children's book calls a 'Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day,' that's not the case.

"There really is no one typical day," Johnson told Stuck on MARC, on the Union Station platform last week.

He usually tries to be in D.C. during the afternoon rush hours when Penn Line trains average 900 to 1,500 passengers per trip. Other times Johnson's driving a state vehicle around Maryland meeting local officials, refilling ticket machines, checking station cleanliness, riding trains himself, or covering the operations center where service announcements originate. He's on call until Penn Line's #446, which leaves D.C. at 10:30pm arrives safely at its destination at Baltimore's Penn Station at 11:27pm, give or take a few.

I usually go home at the end of the day exhausted, Johnson said.

Previous to joining MARC about a year ago, Johnson haunted the halls of Congress as a self-described "Hill policy nerd," advocating for improved public transportation. You could also call Johnson a train nerd: he was a charter representative to the Amtrak Customer Advisory Committee in college and he spent a recent weekend giving a presentation to the National Association of Railroad passengers.

Without a passion for public transport, Johnson said the frustrations of his job would outweigh the benefits.

Recent crowd control problems at Union Station have sparked outcries on local blogs.

Impatience and a mob mentality reign among many MARC commuters during rush hour. I've provided a commuter's perspective time and again on this blog, so it's only fair that I allow Johnson to offer his side in this post.

"We don't get any thrill out of this," Johnson said, referring to the attempts by MARC officials to keep riders off the platforms before their train arrives. "It's about avoiding a chaotic situation," he said, noting a recent incident where 2,000 commuters crowded the platform waiting for a Penn Line train causing 60 Camden Line riders to miss their train.

Johnson added that one of the reasons for keeping riders inside the station and off the platform is to keep them more comfortable (air conditioning, no diesel fumes) and well informed (PA system, notification boards).

The commuter rage, not unlike road rage though less lethal as we don't have our own vehicles to leverage, occasionally boils over during rush hour. Johnson recalled a recent incident.

Commuters were awaiting the 6:40pm Penn Line departure from Union Station. A Girl Scout troop had tickets to board the train and Johnson escorted them to the front of the line so they could board as a group.

"Fuck the Girl Scouts," one irritated commuter yelled.

This level of anger clearly upsets Johnson.

Something that angers commuters, myself included, is when MARC won't wait a few minutes to accommodate Metro riders who are running late due to subway delays.

Johnson explained that because MARC doesn't own the rails-- CSX owns the Camden Line tracks and Amtrak owns the Penn tracks-- the state commuter rail has to defer to its overlords.

For example, if Johnson were to hold a Penn train just 5 minutes in some occasions it would conflict with a passing Amtrak Acela express train, forcing an eventual 20 minute delay.

Johnson addressed two more areas of common complaint: the new, less roomy seats on the Penn Line and the cleanliness of MARC trains.

Seats: "We know the seats stink," Johnson admitted, but, he said that the wait for new seats is 2-3 years, versus the 9 months MARC had to wait to acquire these from VRE (Virginia Railway Express, MARC's Virginia cousin). The VRE seats will be swapped out when the cars undergo a midlife overhaul in a few years.

Cleanliness: When I asked Johnson about the difference in cleanliness between Amtrak trains and Penn Line trains after learning that Amtrak overseas cleaning on both trains, he acknowledged the problem. He promised to look into the issue and see how cleanliness on the Penn Line could be improved.

As a daily Penn Line commuter and author of Stuck on MARC, I really appreciated the time that Johnson took to talk to me and answer my questions.

Here are a few more nuggets of interest from our interview:
  • In 2009 the Penn Line broke the 20,000 daily ridership mark for the first time.
  • 2009 total MARC system daily ridership (Penn, Brunswick, Camden lines) was 32,455. That's a 6,000 person increase from 2004.
  • A weekend schedule for MARC was on the way to the printer two years ago, but was nixed with the economic collapse.
  • CSX is getting out of the business of running passenger trains (their primary business is shipping), which means that the state is looking for a new third party contractor to run the Camden Line. The Camden contract will be the biggest contract ever let by the state of Maryland in terms of scope and cost, said Johnson. The contract will be awarded soon (original target was the end of April). Johnson said the change will mean improved service as it will give MARC more oversight, redress and streamline the system.***

***Clarification: The new CSX contract is for both Camden and Brunswick lines (not just Camden as I mentioned above). Johnson tells me that the contract "also includes facilities maintenance (taking care of all the MARC-owned stations), material inventory/control (e.g. train car windows, brake stands, light bulbs, etc, etc, in other words, anything needed to make a train car or locomotive run) and diesel locomotive maintenance."


  1. any idea of the weekend MARC service plan returning any time soon?

  2. What a bunch of baloney. The crowded waiting spaces assigned for the various MARC lines don't make hearing or getting boarding information any easier, especially when the crowds are huge (and especially when MARC personnel are yelling updates instead of using the PA system). If they would simply post track numbers and open the train doors in a timely fashion, waiting commuters wouldn't block others from getting to their trains.

    This ain't rocket science.

  3. Ditto the F the Girl Scouts. That's like allowing families with small children to board first. That's a choice, not a necessity. Get in line with the rest of us.

  4. Yeah, fuck the girlscouts. I guess you wouldn't care if one of them got abducted and worse, as long as you made your train on time. Yeah, real nice. I hope you have kids and you let them read that.

  5. Hey nice pic Dave! and nice article! I love riding the Camden line - I would never ride the Penn line tho as the people on that line are some of the rudest humans I have ever encountered.