More on MARC from MTA chief
I had the chance to sit down with Maryland Transit Administration chief Paul Wiedefeld last week to talk about MARC service, and he had a lot more to say than I could fit into the Getting There column of The Sun.
Wiedefeld, by the way, is one of the most capable people I've dealt with in state government, though he holds a job that might as well have been designed to make its occupant look bad. You can make a good case that MTA administrator is the toughest job in state government. Governor doesn't even come close.
I put to Wiedefeld some questions that came out of a recent meeting with MARC riders. For instance, when MARC has one of its meltdowns and a trainload of passengers ends up sitting for hours, why doesn't the MTA simply let riders off the train?
Wiedefeld explained that emptying a train is more complicated than it might appear because Amtrak and CSX are continuing to operate on parallel tracks even while a MARC train is stuck. That's particularly tricky on the Penn Line, where Amtrak is running high-speed Acela trains and where MARC trains are often on the middle track.
"You've got trains going by there at 120 mph. You can't just have people wandering around," Wiedefeld said. "They are on you very, very quickly and they're quiet."
Sometimes, he said, the only alternative is to wait until a MARC train can be pushed or pulled to a station. One problem, he said, is that breakdowns often happen at peak hours, when it's difficult to find buses to press into service.
Wiedefeld said one suggestion raised by riders -- keeping trains in reserve to bail out stalled locomotives -- wouldn't work. He said MARC would have to keep three trains in reserve -- one for each line -- and those would come right out of peak-time capacity. In other words, there would be fewer and more crowded trains.
"The key is better equipment, and that's what we have been focusing on," he said. Wiedefeld is pinning his hopes for better performance on the delivery of 26 new locomotives to replace an aged fleet that has been spending far too much time in the repair shop. He expects them to start coming on line in May. He said some of MARC's crowding issues will be alleviated soon as the MTA adds more of the bilevel cars it recently acquired from Virginia. Two of the 13 cars are already in service, he said.
Wiedefeld, who has produced a 28-year plan for MARC expansion, acknowledged that the program has been slowed down by the recent shortfall in state transportation revenue. "The commitment hasn't changed, but we're all adapting to the financial realities we're in," he said.
Wiedefeld said he understands riders' frustration when trains are delayed and nobody tells them what's going on. But sometimes, he said, it takes a while for Amtrak and CSX to inform MARC officials of what is going on. "We can only convey it when we get it," he said, adding that the MTA is working with the two railroads to improve communications.