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January 29, 2010

Here's the rail projects that weren't funded

The good new this morning was the $70 million Maryland received out of $8 billion the Obama administration allocated Thursday for high-speed rail projects. Maryland's share will go toward two important projects for the state -- replacement of Baltimore's ancient Baltimore & Potomac Tunnel on the Amtrak Northeast Corridor and replacement of the far-too-small Amtrak/MARC station at BWI.

But those two projects were only two of seven on the state's original wish list totaling $360 million.

Getting $70 million out of a $360 million request might not sound like much, but it was a  better performance that the national average. The Obama administration received $57 billion in proposals for a share of $8 billion in high-speed rail funds allocated under last year's stimulus bill -- meaning that $1 was granted for roughly every $9 requested nationwide. Maryland received better than $1 for every $6 requested.

Here's the five Maryland projects that didn't make the cut after No. 1 and No. 2 were granted:

 

3. Replace Three Rail Bridges as part of the Northern Maryland Capacity and Trip Time Improvement Program - $200 Million: The funding would provide engineering and studies to advance replacement of the Bush, Susquehanna and Gunpowder bridges.  The new three-track bridges would replace the existing two-track bridges, greatly increasing passenger service to better meet the demands of high-speed rail that Amtrak requires.  Currently, Amtrak, MARC and freight must go slower speeds as they cross these bridges.

4. Wedge Yard - $36 million: The funding would provide final design and construction of a six-track yard in the Washington Terminal to reduce congestion and alleviate overcrowding of intercity and commuter trains stored at Union Station to increase capacity in the corridor.  This project would allow MARC trains, which now have to head all the way back to Baltimore during the day, to remain at Union Station until they are needed for the afternoon rush hour.  The Wedge Yard also would store Amtrak trains overnight.

5. Chesapeake Connector - $25 million: The funding would provide engineering and studies to advance a grade separation and a third track from Perryville to Elkton to improve safety and increase Amtrak and freight capacity.  The grade separation would improve freight movement to the Port of Baltimore by allowing freight trains 24-hour access to the Port through this connection.  Currently, freight traffic is limited to running trains between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

6. Positive Train Control (PTC) - $10 million: This funding would provide MARC with a GPS-based train locating system.  This system will allow MARC to run more efficiently and safely while working with compatible planned systems for Amtrak and CSX.  This funding would provide equipment for trains running on the Amtrak / MARC Penn Line and Brunswick Line.

7. Brunswick Line Signaling Improvements - $18.3 million: This 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.

These aren't projects that will go away. They're simply likely to come back another day in another form -- whether in the state transportation budget, a federal appropriation or a future grant.

 

Posted by Michael Dresser at 11:37 AM | | Comments (6)
Categories: Amtrak/intercity railroads
        

January 28, 2010

D.C. Metro chooses fare increase, not service cuts

Facing a serious shortfall of revenue midway through its fiscal year, the Washington Metro board decided today to reject proposed cuts to rail and bus service and instead impose a 10-cent, across-the-board fare increase.

In addition, the board directed  the staff to  make  an additional $6 billion in "non-operational" cuts. It also OK'd the use of $10 million in stimulus funds -- which had originally been directed to capital projects that later came in under budget  -- for operations.

 The board's action appeared to track the sentiment of riders who appeared at a public hearing Wednesday night, where calls for protection from service cutbacks outweighed opposition to increases in fares. Among the proposed service cutbacks on the table were a  decrease in late-night Metrorail service, a reduction in the number of eight-car trains at peak times and the  elimination of  some bus routes

In another action, the board elected Maryland's Peter Benjamin to serve as Metro chairman for the next year. In that capacity, Benjamin will presumably lead the search for a new general manager to replace John Catoe, who resigned early this month.

 

Posted by Michael Dresser at 1:44 PM | | Comments (4)
Categories: WMATA/D.C. Metro
        

Maryland gets $70 million in federal rail funds

Two high-priority Maryland projects will receive $70 million in funding as part of the $8 billion in rail investments announced yesterday by the Obama administration.

Jack Cahalan, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Transportation, said the state will recived about $60 million toward engineering and preparation of environmental impact statements on a project to replace the more than 100-year-old Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel just west of Penn Station on the way to Washington along Amtrak's Northeast Corridor.

Replacement of the tunnel, a significant bottleneck for Amtrak and MARC Penn Line trains as they pass thhrough Baltimore, is expected to eventually cost on the order of $1 billion, Cahalan said.

Receiving $10 million in funding is a project to replace the Amtrak station and add a new platform at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, Cahalan said. That money will also be used for engineering and ebvironmental statements -- a  necessary step before coonstruction on the $80-$100 million project can begin. As part of that project, Cahalan said, the state will add a fourth track to the current three and  build a middle platform so that all tracks can be used for getting on and off. Currently only two of the three tracks can be used for that purpose.

Cahalan said that in addition to improving Amtrak service, the tunnel and station improvements are also part of MARC's long-range expansion plan.

 

 

The tunnel has been a longtime priority for U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, who helped obtain authorization for the project in a 2008 bill.

In a statment Thursday, Cummings welcomed the administration's announcement.

“This Civil War-era tunnel… has essentially reached the end of its useful life,” Cummings said in a letter to the Federal Railroad Administration supporting the state's application for the money. “Its antiquated design forces trains to travel no more than 30 miles per hour through the structure and its height limitations do not allow the use of taller galley cars.  Replacement of this structure with a modern tunnel is essential to providing the safe accommodations necessary to improve Amtrak service on the Northeast Corridor, including reducing travel times between Washington, D.C., and points north."

 

Posted by Michael Dresser at 12:32 PM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Amtrak/intercity railroads, MARC train
        

Circulator trip planner doesn't plan on Circulator

Greater Greater Washington points out that Baltimore's new Charm City Circulator has a trip planner on its web site, linked to Google Transit, that doesn't include trip-planning data for the Circulator itself.

If you ask it to plan a theoretical route from the 500 block of South President Street to Hollins Market, the trip planner send  you there via the Maryland Transit Administration's No. 10 bus. That's awfully generous, but you'd think the Circulator's free Orange Route could at least be listed as an option.

Along with brochures that touted two routes  that have yet to be launched, a mistake that has reportedly been fixed, this is another example of the not-yet-ready-for-prime-time nature of the  city's free shuttle. Let's hope City Hall can get the bugs worked out before the new routes are launched and the the prime tourism season begins in the spring. Until then, the trip planner should be taken down from the site or be given the appropriate disclaimers.

 

 

Posted by Michael Dresser at 9:28 AM | | Comments (7)
Categories: City bus service
        

BWI posts gain in passenger traffic

Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport reported Wednesday that its passenger traffic had grown six straight months last year to post a 13 percent gain between November and the same months a year earlier. According to airport officials, the airport served 1.7 million commercial passengers in November alone.

Southwest Airlines led the airlines serving BWI with 896,000 passengers in November – a 17 percent increase over the previous year. AirTran Airways brought 270,000 passengers through BWI that month to post a 20.1 percent increase.

Posted by Michelle Deal-Zimmerman at 7:11 AM |
Categories: Air travel
        

January 27, 2010

I-95 ramps to Beltway to close tonight, tomorrow

Late-night travelers be warned: Getting onto the Baltimore Beltway from Interstate 95 south of the city could be tricky.

According to the State  Highway Administration, the ramps from northbound  and southbound I-95  to westbbound Interstate 695 will close tonight and tomorrow night at 11 p.m. and  remain closed until 5 a.m. Travelers will be diverted onto eastbound I-695, where they will be directed to the Hollins Ferry Road exit, where they can circle around to get on the westbound Beltway.

The highway agency said the closings will  allow  road crews to place pavement markings and set up concrete barriiers as part of a $3 million plan to widen the I-95 westbound ramps -- now the scene of frequent backups. The entire project  is expected  to take until fall to complete. Additional midday and overnight closings are expected as work progresses on the project.

 

Posted by Michael Dresser at 2:39 PM | | Comments (4)
Categories: On the roads
        

Beltway lane stripes take a beating

Reader Michael J. Eller raised a point that I'm sure many Matyland motorists have wondered about -- the condition of lane striping on the Beltway. He wrote:

 Why can't Maryland use paint/reflector lane markings that are more visible in the rain at night? On a rainy and dark night , for example, the Beltway lane markings are practically invisible. In other states the lane markings practically glow when illuminated by headlights. What's the problem with Maryland's SHA? 

To which State Highway Administration spokesman Charlie Gischllar offered the following reply:

We understand that lane markings are extremely important to our customers, as they are to SHA.  On top of installing line striping associated with new construction projects or newly resurfaced highways, in FY 09, SHA invested approximately $5.5 million replacing worn line striping throughout the State. 

Although the most expensive and durable lane markings are placed on the interstate system such as the Beltways, they deteriorate over time due to heavy traffic, snow plowing and salt applications during winter storms.  Your reader may have been traveling in an active construction zone, where temporary line striping tape can be worn down rapidly by high levels of daily traffic, especially heavy truck traffic.  In construction zones, permanent line striping is installed immediately following road resurfacing.


SHA is constantly seeking newer and more efficient ways to maximize pavement marking visibility both during the day and night and wet or dry conditions.  SHA currently uses pavement markings that provide maximum benefit for wet and night visibility for our varied geographical region. 

SHA crews and engineers are constantly striving to maintain the  safest roads possible, but it is the public who are often our eyes.  If your reader’s notice something that requires SHA’s immediate attention, they should log onto www.roads.maryland.gov and click the “contact us” tab.  Once on the “contact us” page, click on “Submit a Service Request.”  By completely filling out the online form, a service ticket is created and will be sent to the appropriate office.

It should be noted that the SHA is not responsible for  the maintenance of the entire Baltimore Beltway. Much of the southern and eastern Beltway are under  the jurisdiction of The Maryland Transportation Authority. But the heaviest-traveled parts, to the west of Interstate 95, are the SHA's task.

 

 

Posted by Michael Dresser at 2:15 PM |
Categories: On the roads
        

January 26, 2010

U.S. bans texting by truckers, bus drivers

The Obama administration ratcheted up its effort to combat distracted driving Tuesday as it issued rules prohibiting drivers of large trucks and commercial buses from sending and receiving text messages while behind the wheel.

The new rule announced by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood would impose fines of up to $2,750 on commercial operators who violate the policy.

Rather than a bill passed by Congress, the regulation is based on the federal government's authority to regulate interstate commerce.

Among the officials announcing the new rule was Anne Ferro, the former Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration chief  who now heads the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the agency charged with enforcing the rules.

"Our regulations will help prevent unsafe activity within the cab,” said  Ferro. “We want to make it crystal clear to operators and their employers that texting while driving is the type of unsafe activity that these regulations are intended to prohibit." According to her agency, operators who text while driving are 20 times as likely to get into an accident than drivers  who  have thheir full attention on the road.

The ban is one of several  steps the Obama administration has taken to curb distracted driving since LaHood convened a summit on the  subject last September. Among other actions, President  Obama issued an executive order forbidding federal workers to text while driving  government-owned vehicles.

 

Posted by Michael Dresser at 2:24 PM |
Categories: On the roads
        

What is it with the Washington Metro?

The deaths of two Washington Metro workers in an overnight incident near Rockville adds to a growing list of fatalities on a subway system that has been repeatedly criticized for iits safety lapses.

The deaths of the two track workers follow a bloody 2009 on the Washington subway tracks, which saw a series of employee fatalities as well as the worst single crash in the syatem's history -- a collision of two  trains on the Red Line last summer that killed eight passengers and a train operator.

The National Transportation Safety Board, which has  previously chastised Metro for its safety performance, quickly announced it would  investigate the double fatality, which occurred about 1:45 a.m. a few blocks from the Rockville Metro station.

A representative of the workers' union, Amalgamated Transit Workers Local 699, identified the two men as Jeffrey Garrard and Sung 0h, noth automatic train technicians and longtime Metro employees.

The safety issues raised by a series of crashes come at a time when the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority is struggling with a leadership vacuum left by the resignation of its chief executive, a continuing controversy about how the system is governed and one of the worst budget crunches in the system's history. WMATA is holding a public meeting this week at which it will ask riders to choose from a menu of unpalatable options that include fare increases, service cuts and deferred capital spending.

Early this month, Metro chief executive John Catoe, who had arrived amid high hopes three years ago, announced plans  to leave the job this spring. His resignation came amid inhcreasing criticism of his inability to turn around Metro's safety performance.

Nine people were killed June 22 when a Metro Train on the Red Line failled to stop for a preceding train that had stopped on the tracks near Fort Totten.

Since then, five Metro employees, including this morning's victims, and one subcontractor have died on the job. In addition, three Metro employees were injured in a November incident in which one train rain into another in a railyard in Northern Virginia.

In an incident last month. a team of track inspectors was reported to have been nearly run over by a speeding train.

Under the circumstances, it would strain credibility to write off these occurrences as isolated events. There appears to be a severe cultural problem with safety in the Washington Metro system -- an issue the NTSB is virtually certain to address.

 

Posted by Michael Dresser at 10:30 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: WMATA/D.C. Metro
        

January 25, 2010

Lawmakers announce BRAC funds

Members of Maryland’s congressional delegation announced Monday that they had secured $5.6 million to help pay for road projects related to expanded employment at Fort Meade and Aberdeen Proving Ground under the Pentagon’s base realignment and closing (BRAC) program.

Reps. C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, John Sarbanes and Frank Kratovil, along with Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Benjamin L. Cardin, made the announcement near Route 175 and Rockenbach Road at Fort Meade – one of the intersections scheduled to be improved to accommodate increased traffic at the base. The money was included in an appropriations bill passed by Congress last month.

Posted by Michael Dresser at 5:10 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: On the roads
        

Councilman urges schools to teach rail dangers

In the aftermath of this month's death of 14-year-old  Anna Marie Stickel (right) along the Amtrak tracks in Middle River, Baltimore County Councilman John Olszewski Sr. is weighing in to ask the county school system to do a better job of educating students about the dangers of intruding in the railroad right-of-way.

According to students at Kenwood High School, where Anna was a  freshman, the school administration had said little or nothing to them about the dangers of the tracks before Anna's death. Past students at the school report that in the past, school authorities would hold assemblies to emphasize the hazards -- a practice  that apparently fell by the wayside in recent years. The councilman makes a good point. Here's his letter:

 

           January 21, 2010

 Dr. Joe Hairston

 Superintendent

Department of Education

6901 N. Charles Street

Towson, Maryland 21204

Dear Dr. Hairston:

The recent tragedy in Middle River that took the life of one of our students is cause for much sadness and concern. It is not the first tragedy involving the railroad tracks and fast moving trains.

Anna Marie Stickel age 14 lost her life as she walked to school with her friend. We know she shouldn’t have been walking so near the train, but many of the students use this as a short cut. Many of our youngsters don’t fully realize the dangers of this type of action. It is up to us to help them with this and put in place warnings and information about the dangers. We cannot blame Anna Marie for her immaturity in making a foolish choice of how to get to school. She is gone and her family and friends are left to grieve.

 In the wake of her death, lets begin to take measures to hopefully prevent another tragedy from happening. I believe the Baltimore County school system can play an important role in this. I would like to see this added to the student handbook, perhaps a page devoted to safety measures if you live in a community that is close to any railway. I also recommend that this be included in morning announcements. A warning should be made to students to stay away from train tracks. It should be stressed, especially in the Middle River area, that there are no safe short cuts to school. School assemblies would be a good place to emphasize this.

Lastly, if this could be highlighted in public TV spots that the Board of Education sponsors, it would catch the attention of the general public. Perhaps there are more measures that could be taken. I don’t think we could overdo the precaution messages.

 I know that everyone needs to take responsibility for his or her own actions. Parents should be talking with their children and making them aware of the dangers of coming near the fast moving trains. In a perfect world this would all take place. I don’t want Anna Marie’s death to be in vain. We mourn her loss, but we will do what we can to make sure another student doesn’t lose his or her own life.

I know you have the best interests of our students in your heart and mind. Thank you for your assistance and attention.

Sincerely, John Olszewski, Sr.

County Council

Posted by Michael Dresser at 11:34 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Amtrak/intercity railroads
        

A plea for speed restraint in Wiltondale

Fern Dickman, who lives in the  600 block of Stevenson Lane in Wiltondale, has had it up to here with the speeding in her neighborhood. Here's her story:

I'm writing to you to appeal for some kind of assistance from Baltimore County to stop the speeding traffic on Stevenson Lane. The posted speed limit is 25 MPH. Drivers fly up and down Stevenson Lane from York Road to where they have to slow down at the curve where the Country Club of Maryland is and vice versa.

The county built two small islands, one at Kimway which goes to the back side of Stoneleigh Elementary and one further down towards the golf course. In theory, cars have to slow down to make it through where the road narrows there, but current evidence of the one at Kimway proves that doesn't happen - clearly a vehicle just drove over the island and took out the tree that was planted there and left huge tire tracks.

I walk my dogs. Because I live on the south side of Stevenson Lane, I have to cross the street to walk them because there isn't any sidewalk for most of the south side of the street. I absolutely cannot safely cross the street. I was walking them Friday afternoon. I waited until no cars were coming from either side and started to cross. The next thing I knew a car was speeding up from the golf course, saw us crossing and failed to slow down. I put up my hand almost like a crossing guard and yelled "slow down". All he did was fly around us onto the opposite side of the street.

There is a crosswalk at Kimway and Stevenson. Cars won't even stop there even if I and the dogs are standing in the middle waiting for traffic to slow down or stop. They have put speed humps throughout Rodgers Forge. It is clear to me that the cops absolutely don't care about the speeders on Stevenson Lane. I've tried calling my county councilman to no avail. Please help!!!

 Sounds to me like a good argument for a  speed camera.

Posted by Michael Dresser at 9:45 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: On the roads
        

January 22, 2010

Amtrak fatality revisited

It was Jan. 7, just two weeks ago, that I visited the Middle River community where 14-year-old Anna Marie Stickel was killed when struck by an Amtrak train while walking along the tracks on the way to Kenwood High School. During that visit, I had the opportunity to inspect some of the fences that supposedly separate the public froom the tracks, and to find some of the gaps that had been created over the years by people wanting to cut through.

One of those  cut-through points was one off an alley not far from Kenwood. A well-worn path signaled that it had been used for years by local residents -- most  likely high school kids -- seeking a shortcut.

During that visit, two days after Anna's death, there was a brand-new fix in place -- apparently added in response to the tragedy. But my impression at the time was that it was an amateurish job at best -- held together by a metal strip that could be removed by hand with no more difficulty than popping the top on a  soda can. The fence that had been repaired looked worn and shoddy.

Earlier today, I got an opportunity to revisit the site. Sure enough, the metal strip had been removed and left in a ditch. The repaired section of fence had been peeled back to open a gap. The shortcut was  back in operation.

There are two ways to look at this turn of events. You can accept the typical railroad industry laments about  the  supposed impossibility of securing the tracks against a nation of vandals. Or you can ask why Amtrak couldn't make a more  effective repair -- one that would have at least required the trespasser to bring a hefty wirecutter.

Protecting railroad tracks from intruders isn't easy. Nobody should underestimate how much of a challenge it is. But when you look at the condition of the fences in the Middle River area -- and their total absence in places -- you have  to wonder whether Amtrak is even trying.

Hello, it's 2010. Can't we build a better chain link fence than we did  iin the 1970s?

 

Posted by Michael Dresser at 1:12 PM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Amtrak/intercity railroads
        

NTSB blames texting in fatal Calif. train crash

It comes as no surprise given the Nattional Transportation Safety Board's earlier statements on the case, but the agency made it official Thursday that the cause of the September 2008 train commuter crash that killed 25 people in Chatsworth, Calif., was "the engineer's prohibited use of a wireless device while he was operating the train.

The engineer was among those killed in the crash. which also injured more than 100 people.

Since that crash many transit agencies, including the Maryland Transit Administration, have toughened their policies on texting and cell phone calls.

The NTSB's synopsis of its full report on the crash tells the detail in succinct if depressing form. A copy of the agency's press release follows below.

 

 

 

 

 Los Angeles Times photo

 

NTSB DETERMINES ENGINEER'S FAILURE TO OBSERVE AND RESPOND TO
RED SIGNAL CAUSED 2008 CHATSWORTH ACCIDENT; RECORDERS IN
CABS RECOMMENDED

************************************************************

Washington, DC - The National Transportation Safety Board
determined today that the 2008 rail accident in Chatsworth,
California, involving a Metrolink commuter train and a Union
Pacific freight train, was caused by the Metrolink
engineer's prohibited use of a wireless device while he was
operating the train.  The engineer failed to respond
appropriately to a red signal at Control Point Topanga
because he was engaged in text messaging at the time, the
NTSB said.
 
The September 12, 2008 head-on collision resulted in 25
fatalities and more than 100 injuries.  As a result of its
findings, the NTSB recommended that the Federal government
require audio and image recorders in the cabs of all
locomotives and in cab car operating compartments.

According to records from the wireless provider, on the day
of the accident, while on duty, both the Metrolink engineer
and the Union Pacific conductor used wireless devices to
send and receive text messages.  The engineer also made non-
business related voice calls while on duty.  "For the
transportation industry, this accident demonstrates that we
must find a way to wrap our arms around the pervasive
problem of transportation operators using wireless devices
while on the job, whether that job is driving a bus, flying
an airplane, or operating a train," NTSB Chairman Deborah A.
P. Hersman said.

Although Metrolink prohibits its engineers from using
wireless devices while operating a train, the privacy
afforded by the locomotive cab, once the train leaves a
station, makes it difficult for violations of operating
rules to be discovered through ordinary management
supervision or efficiency testing, the NTSB noted.  On
previous occasions, the Metrolink engineer also had allowed
unauthorized persons to join him in the locomotive cab and
even operate the train.

The NTSB also cited the lack of a positive train control
system (PTC) as a contributing factor in the accident.  A
positive train control system would have stopped the
Metrolink train short of the red signal, thus preventing the
accident.  "This accident shows us once again that the
safety redundancy of PTC is needed now," Hersman said.  "It
can and will save lives even when operators ignore safety
rules or simply make mistakes."

With the completion of this accident investigation, the NTSB
made two recommendations to the Federal Railroad
Administration:
      
1.    Require the installation, in all controlling locomotive
cabs and cab car operating compartments, of crash- and
fire-protected inward- and outward-facing audio and
image recorders capable of providing recordings to
verify that train crew actions are in accordance with
rules and procedures that are essential to safety as
well as train operating conditions. The devices should
have a minimum 12-hour continuous recording capability
with recordings that are easily accessible for review,
with appropriate limitations on public release, for the
investigation of accidents or for use by management in
carrying out efficiency testing and system-wide
performance monitoring programs.

2.    Require that railroads regularly review and use in-cab
audio and image recordings (with appropriate limitations
on public release), in conjunction with other
performance data, to verify that train crew actions are
in accordance with rules and procedures that are
essential to safety.

A summary of the findings of the Board's report is available
on the NTSB's website at:
http://ntsb.gov/Publictn/2010/RAR1001.htm.  The Board's full
report will be available on the website in several weeks.

Posted by Michael Dresser at 7:00 AM |
        

January 21, 2010

Amtrak replies on victim identification

Amtrak's chief spokesman, Steve Kulm, sent this clarification of Amtrak's policy on the identification of victims of train-pedestrian collisions on its tracks. The statement represents a change from the railroad's previous flat assertion that it was Amtrak policy not to release such identifications.

When individuals trespassing on railroad tracks are struck and fatally injured by Amtrak trains, we are saddened by the unnecessary loss of life and understand all too well the grief that surviving friends and families experience.  The emotional impact of a trespass incident can extend also to our Amtrak train crew members and to passengers aboard the train.

When it comes to investigating trespass accidents of this nature, it is generally the state and local law enforcement agencies that assume the responsibility as the lead investigating agency. 

Amtrak Police perform certain functions since the fatal event involves an Amtrak train, but our usual role is in support of the investigation being led by state or local authorities.  There are several reasons for this approach with the main ones being that state law usually confers jurisdiction to the state or local agency to conduct the investigation, assigns state medical examiners or coroners the authority to determine cause of death and, as a practical matter in most circumstances, the state and local police arrive on the scene before Amtrak Police.

As a result of these experiences, Amtrak Police defers and provides support to the state and local law enforcement investigation, and thus, we do not publicly release information regarding the individual. In addition, Amtrak is often not made aware of when local authorities notify next of kin.  Further, state and local authorities publicly release this information when they so choose and they do so without guidance from or interaction with Amtrak Police.

Regarding the recent Aberdeen trespass incident, Amtrak Police has contacted the Aberdeen Police Department and confirmed that they are the lead investigating agency.  If you have not already made contact with them, please call their Public Information Officer. . . .

We appreciate the concern and attention you are bringing to the trespass issue.

Steve Kulm
Director, Media Relations
Amtrak

Mr. Kulm's note is welcome, as is the release of the information Thursday by the Aberdeen Police. Let's hope this misunderstanding leads  to a clarification of protocols so that local police agencies  aren't left under the impression they have been superseded by Amtrak Police in their normal release of information. Amtrak also needs to make sure that when it refers inquiries to another agency that it does so in a timely and accurate manner.

Posted by Michael Dresser at 4:03 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Amtrak/intercity railroads
        

Man killed by Amtrak train in Aberdeen named

After some resistance from Amtrak, we now have an identification of the man who was killed last Friday when he was struck on the railroad's Northeast Corridor tracks in Aberdeen. According to the Aberdeen Police Department, the man is James Dexter Sharon, 48, of the Aberdeen area.

According to department spokesman Sgt. Fred Budnick, next of kin have been notified but police are not aware of any fixed adddress. Sharon was struck by a southbound train along the  tracks  at the 600 block of South Philadelphia Boulevard (U.S. 40) in Aberdeen. Budnick said questions about whether the victim was intoxicated could not be answered until toxicology reports came back.

Earlier this week the Aberdeen Police deferred questions about the man's identity to the Amtrak Police as the lead investigative agency. The Amtrak Police declined to provide an identification, saying it was their policy not to do so. On Thursday, Budnick said the matter had been clarified and that the matter was  now considered "a joint investigation."

Posted by Michael Dresser at 2:31 PM |
Categories: Amtrak/intercity railroads
        

Amtrak still won't name Aberdeen victim

It's almost a week since a man was killed on the Amtrak tracks near Aberdeen and there's still no word from the railroad's in-house police force on the victim's identity.

The Amtrak Police are the lead investigative agency in the case, but public affairs officials for the railroad were still refusing Wednesday to provide any information on the name, age or hometown of the victim -- or even to say whether the person had been identified at all. The Aberdeen police deferred to the Amtrak police because the railroad cops are running the investigation.

An Amtrak spokeswoman deflected an inquiry Tuesday, saying: "Amtrak Police informed me that the medical examiner could provide this information for you" and passed along that number.

It turned out to be a classic runaround. The Amtrak Police apparently misled the public affairs office. According to state Medical Examiner David Fowler -- the chief himself, not a flunky -- it is illegal for his office to provide that information. According to Fowler, it is the job of the police to provide identifications of victims to the public -- an assertion that squares with the practice of other police departments in Maryland.

Checking back with Amtrak, spokesman Steve Kulm professed ignorance of that practice. He said it was Amtrak police policy not to identify the dead in such cases. He said he'd check back, but as of the close of business Wednesday, he said: "I'll tell you honestly I'm not hopeful."

The flaw in Amtrak's "policy" is that there's a real dead person here. He may have been a trespasser, he may have been a vagrant, he may have been a drunk, but he had a name and somewhere he had a family.

Amtrak, of course, doesn't like trespassers  on its tracks. Perhaps the railroad prefers that when they are struck by its trains they die in anonymity, so that nobody can look into their stories and perhaps portray them as individuals with humanity. Because of the short attention span of the media, the railroad can usually count on reporters to go away after a few days.

My question is why the government would give Amtrak Police the power to investigate fatal accidents but not require the department to meet the minimal disclosure standards followed by other police agencies. Amtrak, it should be recalled, is heavily supported with taxpayer dollars -- something its police force must have forgotten.

 

 

 

 

 

Posted by Michael Dresser at 7:35 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Amtrak/intercity railroads
        

January 20, 2010

MARC news could be worse

It was another miserable morning on MARC -- with switch problems and locomotive malfunctions plaguing the morning commute on the Penn Line.

Yet it  could have been worse.

MTA spokeswoman Angela White reports that this morning's woes were the result of a switch problem at  Edgewood, which forced a northbound MARC train to stop there while an Amtrak train carried passengers on to Aberdeen and Perryvile. Switch problems are an Amtrak issue, so  MARC deserves a pass on that one.

The engine problem occurred near BWI when a malfunctioning water level sensor caused one of  MARC's diesel engines to automatically turn off. This is mainly good news because of what wasn't the problem.

White went on to explain that the problem was not a recurrence of the previous day's failure of one of  MARC's four recently repaired AEM-7 electric locomotives, which until recent monthhs had been out of service -- putting the entire  burden on MARC's six less-than-reliable HHP electric engines. 

And she held out  hope that the addition of MARC's new MP 36 diesels would help relieve some problems and speed the retirement of some of MARC's older diesel engines.

At this time, we consider yesterday’s malfunction of the AEM 7 an isolated incident.  The locomotive had not experienced any problems and had been running very well since it returned.  AMTRAK is working with us to resolve the issue.

Fortunately, the MP 36 diesels are coming on line and currently we have 2 of them running in the midst of their 30-day evaluation.  While the old diesels used last summer could fill in when the HHP’s went down, the MP 36 diesels are powerful enough to pull the Penn Line trains with close to the full complement of passenger cars usually attached to the electrics.  

Since the health of MARC's locomotives essentially controls the lives of its commuters, perhaps  the MTA should come up wiith a way for riders to more closely track the health of each of these engines  -- much in the way that followers of the Baltimore Ravens can get reports on the health of players. Why can't MARC put a roster of locomotives on line with updates on which are available to play and which are on the disabled list and why?

It might not improve MARC riders' commuting experience, but  it would give them something new to bet on while stranded on the tracks.

Posted by Michael Dresser at 5:45 PM | | Comments (4)
Categories: MARC train
        

January 19, 2010

MARC meltdown is bad; reason is worse

The news from MARC today was bad in a typical kind of way -- three canceled trains after a locomotive breakdown on the Penn Line, delays of 30-90 minutes. Nothing veteran MARC riders haven't lived through before.

What's  ominous is the details: The breakdown came in one of the AEM-7 electric locomotives that has only recently been returned to the tracks after several years in Amtrak's Wilmington shop. Late last year, Amtrak found the  supposed fix, and began reurning the supposedly operative engines to  MARC.

According to Maryland Transit Administration spokeswoman Angela White, the cause of this morning's breakdown has not yet been determined. The AEM-7 has been delivered to Amtrak's Washington yard. MARC riders had better hope the problem is not related to the  AEM-7's previous electrical woes. Otherwise it might be a long winter and spring on the Penn Line.

 

Posted by Michael Dresser at 4:56 PM | | Comments (5)
Categories: MARC train
        

Blogger betrays naivete on Maryland politics

Adam Pagnucco of Maryland Politics Watch does some of the best and worst political reporting of any blog in the state of Maryland -- sometimes in the same article.

Case in point: Pagnucco just posted a lengthy article entitled "The Great Choir of Happy Talk"   about transportation funding in Maryland in which he points out -- quite accurately -- that big projects cost actual money. No surprise there, but it's refreshing to see this dose of reality. The writer goes into quite a  bit of detail on what it would take to build each of three transit projects in the state -- the Red Line, the Purple Line and  the Corridor Cities Transitway.

But Pagnucco gets the politics  all wrong, as  he so often does.

 

First, Pagnucco equates sponsorship of bills with being serious about transportation funding. That might be Montgomery County logic but it's not Annapolis logic. The most important players in transportation funding decisions are the House speaker, the Senate president and the relevant committee chairs. Each of  them is very serious about transportation funding, but each is very strategic about when and where they put their own names on a bill. Often that doesn't happen until a consensus is in place.

Pagnucco also reads far too much into a feel-good, no-chance  bill put in by a group of mostly Republican lawmakers that could have led to a cut in transportation funding. He seems to find something hypocritical in the participation of two  Baltimore County lawmakers -- Republicans William Frank and Joe Boteler -- in pushing this idea even though the Red Line would run part of its length in their county.

Excuse me, Adam. Have you ever checked out a district map of Baltimore  County? Frank represents Towson;  Boteler represents Perry Hall. Neither comes close to the Red Line corridor. Their constituencies don't benefit from the line. They might be wrong-headed on the metropolitan level but there's nothing hypocritical if they are indifferent toward the Red Line. They're just representing their districts and their party.

Folks from Baltimore who write on staewide politics had better learn the differences between Germantown and Takoma Park, becaue Montgomery County isn't a monolith. Montgomery commentators who  wish to dabble in Baltimore politics would be well advised to learn Baltimore County's political  geography.

Finally, Pagnucco seems to find something surprising in the fact that politicians  aren't rushing forward to identify revenue  sources for the state's contribution to transit projects that haven't been OK'd yet  by the Federal Transit Administration. If his naivete is feigned, he's faking it very well, but he's also setting up false expectations for his readers.

Let's say you are a principled but prudent politician who supports transit projects. Because  you're principled, you are ready to step forward to back a funding stream for transit once the projects are approved. But if you're prudent, you wait until the federal government has acted before taking a politically risky stand. Why cross a bridge before you come to it -- particularly when there's a chance you won't come to the  bridge? That not cravenness, that's Politics  101.

There is, by the way, a place in Maryland that offers excellent courses in Politics 101, plus 201, 301 and several graduate level seminars. It's called the  Maryland General  Assembly. Pagnucco would benefit greatly by enrolling.

Posted by Michael Dresser at 3:57 PM | | Comments (4)
Categories: For policy wonks only
        

Water main break causes major Beltway woes

UPDATE: State traffic cameras  show  the entire west side of the Outer Loop is a  complete mess at about 6:20 p.m. Work crews are still on the scene at the Wilkens interchange. Traffic is backed up at least as far as Liberty Road. It might be a day to  go east and use the Harbor or Fort McHenry tunnels.

EARLIER: The State Highway Administration says a series of lane closings on the Baltimore Beltway nearr Wilkens Avenue could last through the evening rush hour.

A break in a Baltimore city-owned main has closed three lanes of the Outer Loop between Wilkens Avenue and Interstate 95. Two lanes remained open, but highway officials are urging motorists to bypass that section of the Beltway by  using Interstates 70, U.S. 95 and Maryland 100.

According to the SHA, the water flow has been turned off and crews are assessing damage.  Officials  are warning of major delays.

 

Posted by Michael Dresser at 3:16 PM |
Categories: On the roads
        

Councilman seeking rail safety solutions

Monday's Getting There column calling on the entire Middle River community to take a share  of responsibilty for preventing recurrences of the tragic  railroad track  accidents such as the one that caused the  death of 14-year-old Anna Marie Stickel was not universally persuasive.

Quite a few readers continue to hold the view that Anna, who was certainly on the Amtrak tracks unwisely and without authorization, was solely responsible for her death -- or as one writer put it "this girl got what she asked for."

Fortunately, the east side of Baltimore  County is represented by a councilman who sees a community interest in protecting young teenagers from their own immaturity. Baltimore County Council Chairman John Olszewski Sr. (right) sent me this  email signaling that he is interested in looking for solutions -- not merely pointing a finger at a dead girl and her grieving parents:

Good morning Michael, I just finished reading your article in the morning paper and I think you got it right. This issue isn't just a parental one but it is one that everyone involved should come together and come up with some collaborative ideas to bring a bright light onto the subject of dangerous train tracks.

I have asked the Superintendent and the Vice President of the Board to consider putting something in the yearly handbook that is distributed to students so that they and parents as well can be reminded of the dangers of using train tracks as a short cut to school. This will reenforce to students the dangers of railroad crossings and the horrific consequences associated with using these tracks as short cuts to schools.

These crossings are very dangerous areas that need to be clearly marked, patrolled for trespassers and continually talked about in different settings. They should be mentioned in assemblies in school, morning announcements,public television and community meetings where everyone in the community strives for a better quality of life in (their) neighborhoods as well as (a) safer place to live.

I will continue to try to do my part by giving the County Executive some ideas as to what we can do as public officials. Thank you for doing your part by keeping this story alive so that others may act in a responsible way so that other families don't have to face such a tragic situation.

Posted by Michael Dresser at 11:22 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Amtrak/intercity railroads
        

January 15, 2010

Amtrak train kills man near Aberdeen

An Amtrak Acela train struck and killed a man near Aberdeen about 2 p.m., according to the Maryland Transit Administration, disrupting traffic on the Northeast Corridor and MARC Penn Line.

The 2:50 p.m. Penn Line train leaving Perryville for Washington has been delayed indefinitely. Two northbound Penn Line trains -- those scheduled to leave Union Station at 4:46 p.m. and 5:10 p.m. have been canceled. MARC was hoping to get riders heading for stations north of Baltimore on a later train once the tracks reopen.

Few details about the  incident were available as of 4:10 p.m. The fatality would be the second involving an Amtrak train in Maryland in as many weeks. Last week, 14-year-old Anna Marie Stickel was  killed when she was struck by a Northeast Regional train while walking along the tracks in Middle River.

 

 

Here are the latest MARC woes, reported by the MTA at 6:06 p.m.

 

Penn: MARC 441 (625p BAL Dp) has been cancelled.

Penn: MARC 530 (424p WAS Dp) is operating 45 mins late approaching Martins Airport.

Penn: MARC 534 (520p WAS Dp) is operating approx 15-20 mins late in the BWI area.

Penn: MARC 436 is operating approx 15 mins late approaching Odenton.

Penn: MARC 439 is operating approx 10 mins late approaching Seabrook.

Due to signal problems between New Carrollton and Washington, MARC northbound trains are expected to operate 15 - 20 minute late.

Due to signal problems between New Carrollton and Washington, MARC southbound trains are expected to operate 15 - 20 minute late arriving in Washington.

 

Posted by Michael Dresser at 3:40 PM | | Comments (4)
        

BWI for sale? Not quite

A report in FT.com, the Financial Times' web site, saying Gov. Martin O'Malley had expressed interest in the sale of BWI Marshall Airport or an initial public offering of stock in a privatized BWI may have been a tad exaggerated -- at least in terms of its impact in the blogosphere. But it certainly was interesting enough to send us in search  of an explanation from the Maryland Department of Transportation.

So what's changed? According to MDOT spokesman Jack Cahalan, not much. Apparently a reporter asked the governor whether the state would be open to a deal at the airport similar to  that recently concluded deal at the port of Baltimore for a long-term lease of Seagirt Marine Terminal. O'Malley, in response, didn't close the door on privatization, but Cahalan said he didn't open it any wider than it already was.

"There is no proactive effort by the administration to change the staus of BWI Marshall," Cahalan said.

Cahalan said the idea of an initial  public offering is not  plausible now  because "we're not a private company." He said the department would continue to monitor trends and "best practices" in the airport industry but added that state officials know of no realistic privatization models worth even looking at -- let alone duplicating.

Cahalan added that the O'Malley administration is "open to new ideas" and has a process in place at the Maryland Transportation Authority to evaluate  any unsolicited offers it might receive for state assets.

However, he added that the administration's policy on public-private partnnerships was that they  would have bring public value, create  jobs and improve a public service to merit consideration. Cahalan said  last year's lease deal with Ports America at Seagirt met those criteria, but  he cautioned that such an arrangement might not work at the airport.

"Just because one has worked for  the port doesn't mean that other public-private partnerships will automatically work for every other property," Cahalan said. "Each property would have to be evaluated and examined thoroughly on its own merits because each proposal is different, as is each property."

In other words, the idea that a public-private partnership at BWI or anywhere else will provide a short-term fix to the state's transportation budget woes is likely way off the mark.

 

 

 

 

Posted by Michael Dresser at 11:37 AM | | Comments (7)
Categories: Air travel
        

January 14, 2010

BWI could be sold or go public, O'Malley says

FT.com, the web site of the Financial Times, is reporting that Gov. Martin O'Malley told a conference he's open to the sale of Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport -- or a public offering of stock in the facility.

To put this  in context, this  was not a gubernatorial announcement but a response  to a question.

Sun Business Editor Laura Smitherman elaborates:

O’Malley was asked the question at the conference and responded that he would be open to it. But they arren’t proactively seeking bidders, and any deal would take more than a year to hammer out -- so it’s not a short-term budget fix. The governor has been open to privatizing other assets  and apparently would consider an airport offer if the price is right.

 

Posted by Michael Dresser at 9:20 PM | | Comments (18)
Categories: Air travel
        

SHA launches customer care system

Taking a cue from private industry, the State Highway Administration  has introduced a new system for streamling its responses to its "customers" -- using a web-based model that will let people submit serviice requests  and comments and monitor the response online.

“SHA is committed to keeping drivers, transit users, pedestrians and cyclists safe as they travel through Maryland on the state highway system,” said State Highway Administrator Neil J. Pedersen. “Customers are our eyes on the road and they can often alert us to an issue before it becomes a problem or safety concern. Having a convenient tool for feedback and two-way communication is invaluable.”

According to the SHA its new Customer Care Management System will make it easier to do everything from reporting a pothole to requesting a map to inquiring about the state's Adopt-A-Highway. The agency said the new system  will guide customers through an easy process to make inquiries or report problems. 

For example, to report a pothole a customer would enter the county and the system would provides a list of the state roads in that jurisdiction.  Customers will not need to know which district office serves that area; the sytem automatically route the message to the right office.

To enter send the agency a message, a customer would visit the SHA’s webpage  and  click on “Contact us” in the left navigational bar, and click “Submit a Service Request.” The customer can make the  request  then choose how to be contacted. According to the SHA, the system will create  a tracking number and send automated e-mails when the request is created and the response  iis complete.

The agency said its online customer service system will be  monitored during business hours, 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. Monday through Friday excluding holidays and  furlough days.

The SHA maintains more than 17,000 lane miles of road and 2,500 bridges throughout the state.  Its jurisdiction includes  most non-toll interstates, U.S. highways and state numbered routes outside Baltimore city.  Roads without numbers outside Baltimore are usually the  responsibility of the  county.

Among the tasks the SHA handlles are "snow and ice removal, mowing and trimming, drainage and storm water management, line-striping, signal maintenance, pothole repair, resurfacing, management of highway construction projects, inspecting bridges and traffic management during emergencies and incidents." 

Posted by Michael Dresser at 5:03 PM |
Categories: On the roads
        

Catoe stepping down as D.C. Metro chief

John Catoe, the embattled head of Washington's Metro system, has announced his retirement, according to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.

Catoe has been under fire for his leadership of Metro after a long string of safety problems affecting both the Washington subway and Metrobus operations -- most notably the collision of two subway trains that killed nine last July.

Here's how WMATA explained the move in a brief press release:

Metro General Manager John Catoe has decided to retire and leave the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority after three years as its top manager. Catoe informed Metro’s Board of Directors today of his decision to leave the transit agency. His last day will be Friday, April 2.

“I have decided that it is time for me to channel my future in new directions and provide this organization an opportunity to move beyond the current distractions,” Catoe said. “Good leaders know how to impact change. Great leaders know when it’s time for leadership change. I hope I fall into the latter category.”

“The Board of Directors has just been informed of General Manager Catoe’s decision to retire,” said Board Chairman Jim Graham. “We appreciate his stewardship during this difficult time and we will miss his leadership. While we regret his decision, he continues to have the full confidence of the Board of Directors.

“We will shortly begin the deliberative process on transition and succession,” Graham said.

Posted by Michael Dresser at 1:56 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: WMATA/D.C. Metro
        

Porcari role likely in transit policy shift

This is nothing more than an educated guess, but if investigators were to dust the Obama administration's new policy for funding transit projects, they would likely find former Maryland Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari's fingerprints all over it. The new policy allows the federal government to  give  more weight to such matters  as "livability," the environment and economic development in choosing which projects  to fund.

No disrespect  to U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, but it is Porcari -- now the No. 2 official in the federal department -- who brought to the administration a deep experience with the  Bush administration's rigid cost-benefits formula for funding transit. As Maryland secretary, Porcari oversaw the Maryland Transit Administration's struggles to keep Baltimore Red Line project within the old formula -- which didn't allow much room  for accommodating the desires of the affected neighborhoods.

The payoff for Maryland in having an alumnus helping to craft federal decisions is that future policy could be more friendly to urban states such as Maryland. But  it is doubtful whether Porcari could play much of a role in decisions about projects already in the decision-making pipeline. The Red Line will have to stand or fall based on its own merits.

 

Posted by Michael Dresser at 1:33 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Red Line
        

Amtrak to add WiFi to Acela Express

Amtrak announced this  week that it will add WiFi service to its Acela Express service  this  March -- but with the ominous  caveat that it would "make it available to every passenger initially free of charge.

The addition of a high-speed wireless Internet connection is encouraging -- if a little behind  the times. The Autopia blog notes that some intercity buses already offer the service, as well as JetBlue, which also operates in the Northeast Corridor.

In addition to WiFi, Amtrak also announced it will upgrade the Acela Express service  -- the nation's fastest -- by renovating the interior of its rail cars by the end of the year. Amtrak said the improvements will include  leather seating  and better tray tables and power outlets for laptop computers,

The Sun/Jed Kirschbaum

Amtrak spokeswoman Tracy Connell said the WiFi service  would be free at first and that the railroad would gauge customer  response vefore deciding whether to charge for the service.

 

Posted by Michael Dresser at 7:00 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Amtrak/intercity railroads
        

January 13, 2010

Will new Obama transit policy affect Red Line?

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced a new Obama administration policy Wednesday on funding of transit projects that scraps the Bush administration's rigid cost-benefit formula and replaces it with one that takes into account issues of neighborhoood livability.

This could be big news for the Baltimore area if it lets the Maryland Transit Administration go back and revise its pending application for funding of the east-west Red Line. In that case, what  otherwise might have been a community consensus has been fractured by the need to keep the project's budget within the old guidelines. And even if it doesn't bring about a re-examination of the  decision the keep the light rail line on the surface in Canton and along West Baltimore, it could open the door to permit  the MTA to drop its unpalatable proposal to run the line on a single track under Cooks Lane.

 

It was not clear Wednesday night what the MTA's view of the policy will be. We'll be seeking answers to those questions Thursday.

In the meantime, here's how LaHood summarized the new policy:

We’re going to free our flagship transit capital program from long-standing requirements that have allowed us only to green-light projects that meet very narrow cost and performance criteria.

Instead, as we evaluate major transit projects going forward, we’ll consider ALL the factors that help communities reduce their carbon footprint, spur economic activity, and relieve congestion.

To put it simply: We WILL take livability into account.

As I wrote, this could be very big for transit project nationwide. But especially here in Maryland. Stay tuned.

 

 

Posted by Michael Dresser at 6:24 PM | | Comments (8)
Categories: Red Line
        

Charm City Circulator: West may be best

Much of the attention given the Charm Ciity Circulator's Orange Route has focused on its ability to draw downtown Baltimore closer to the trendy Harbor East area. But there's another end to that route where the iimpact could be even more profound.

On the far western end of the free shuttle route is the Hollins Market (right) -- in a neighborhood that has long teetered between blight and renewal. There's not a  lot there now -- the charming, down-home market itself  and a couple  of good restaurants -- but the city administration has high hopes that the Circulator coould make it a lunchtime desination for adventurous downtown workers.

The Sun/Michael Dresser

I found time Wednesday to duck out for lunch at one of those eateries -- Baltimore Pho. It's a Vietnamese restaurant that's well worth a visit for its $5-a-bowl lunchtime pho (a meal-size soup) and other delights you can't find downtown. Also worth a visit is Zella's gourmet pizzeria on the other side of the market.

Baltimore deputy transportation director Jamie Kendrick called Hollins Market "the hidden jewel" of the Orange Route  and  confirmed that the city had revitalization in mind when it charted the route. "That's exactly why we're going out there," he said. "Part of the idea is to add to the vigor of Hollins Market."

The market might be too far a run for workers on the east side of downtown (unless the boss comes along), but people whose jobs lie west of Charles Street might want to take advantage of the opportunity to explore one of  Baltimore's colorful and historic neighborhoods without having to get the car out of the parking garage.

One kink the city needs to work out is keeping the Circulator on its schedule of 10-minute intervals. I ended up waiting 20 minutes for a return bus -- not an acceptable performance  for those on tight lunchtime schedules.

But as Kendrick noted, the Circulator is still in its shakedown period. "We're learning every day," he said. The service's operators better learn fast because they'll only get one chance to make a first impression.

Posted by Michael Dresser at 4:41 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: City bus service
        

Charm City Circulator: Dumb, dumb, dumb!

UPDATE: The city's very  smart deputy transportation director, Jamie Kendrick, was reached by cell phone while aboard a Circulator bus. He agreed the misleading information described below is a problem, and said it would be rectified quickly.

Perhaps time will prove me wrong, but the new Charm City Circulator seems like a smart idea on many levels. But two days after its debut, a ride on the newly opened Orange Route uncovered one of the dumbest examples of government misinformation that could be imagined.

At the front of each bus, the city is distributing brochures with the Circulator's routes and operating schedules. The brochures are very complete, including information about all three routes. There's just one small omission: The brochures don't inform riders that two of the routes -- Purple and Green -- aren't operating yet.

The Sun/Jed  Kirschbaum

So let's say you're a visitor from out of town -- or a  local resident who didn't read Tuesday's article in The Sun. You hop on the Orange Route and pick up this map that shows you can connect to a Purple Route bus that will  take you up to Mount Vernon or Penn Station. So you go stand at the corner where the city itself has told you you can catch a connecting bus. And you stand and stand and stand, puzzled at  the bus that never comes.

It appears some city bureaucrat decided it was OK to give riders bad information for several months -- until the Purple and Green routes' spring debut -- just to save on printing costs. Dumb, dumb, dumb!

These buses still bear the name of Mayor Sheila "Cleaner, Greener" Dixon and are a part of her legacy. If she would like to burnish her tarnished image a bit before she leaves office Feb. 4, she should personally stop every Circulator bus and clean out every  handout that could leave a potential Circulator rider stranded on the street.

By the way, when my bus today reached the Inner Harbor stop on Pratt Street, the recorded announcement said it was the transfer point for the Purple Route. Dumber, dumber, dumber!

Posted by Michael Dresser at 3:11 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: City bus service
        

New diesel locomotives make debut on MARC

Could  deliverance for MARC riders be at hand?

In response to overwhelming interest among MARC riders. Getting There asked Maryland Department of Transportation Department spokesman Jack Cahalan for the latest on the new diesel locomotive that are expected to allow the commuter rail service to finally retire some of the venerable engines that have been hauling trains for more than three decades.

The news appears to be good.

Sun photo/Karl Ferron

As most MARC riders know, and others  may recall, the new engines were introduced amid great ballyhoo last spring when Gov. Martin O'Malley rode one into Camden Yards for the cameras. But instead of helping to relieve MARC's traditional summer crunch, the first two of 26 locomotives to be delivered sat and sat while the state wrangled with the manufacturer over safety certifications.

The dispute was settled in the fall as the company agreed to perform the safety tests and certifications Maryland demanded -- at state expense. According to Cahalan, those certifications were completed Dec. 29. Two days later, the first of the MP 36  locomotives began what is known as revenue testing -- in which an engine hauls a train in actual serviice but  with a backup engine on the train in case its fails.

Cahalan said that engine performed well in testing and now is operating well on its own -- having been used on the Camden, Penn and Brunswick lines. He said a second MP 36 began revenue testing Tuesday on the Camden Line.

The performance of both engines will be evaluated over a 30-day periiod, Cahalan said. After that, if they perform well, the state wil begin accepting the remaining 24 engines in its new diesel fleet at a rate of two a month. Should that occur without the hitch, the last of MARC's old, trouble-prone diesels would be retired by early  next  year.

Meanwhile, Cahalan reported, electrical upgrades have been completed on  the last of four AEM-7 electric locomotives that had been sidelined on long-term disability for more than two years. Cahalan said Amtrak is  expected to release that engine to MARC within two weeks.

The idling of the AEM-7 locomotives  left MARC with a severe lack of  reserve strength on its busy Penn Line, forcing it to substitute less powerful engines that could pull fewer cars. The result was severe crowding the MARC officials hope will soon be relieved.

Posted by Michael Dresser at 10:39 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: MARC train
        

January 12, 2010

Transportation police recruiting women

Women who have an interest in wearing a badge might want to check out the first-ever Maryland Transportation Authority Police "Women in Law Enforcement Career Night" Wednesday night after working hours.

The event will be held from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30  p.m. at the transportation authority police headquarters at 4330 Broening Highway -- at the north end of the Francis Scott Key Bridge.

The transportation authority police are the primary law enforcement department for Maryland's toll facilities, Baltimore-Washington  International Thurgood Marshall Airport, the port of Baltimore, parts  of Interstate 95 and certain other highways and state transportation facilities.

As a suspicious reporter, I had to ask police spokesman Sgt. Jonathan Green whether the event was part of a legal settlement of some kind. He assured  me it was not and that the force simply has an interest in increasing its recruitment of women.

 

 

Posted by Michael Dresser at 5:18 PM |
        

Maryland ranks high on safety report card

Maryland ranked among the top four states on the annual report  card issued by Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety Tuesday, with a boost from its recently adopted ban on text-messaging behind the wheel.

The state was given credit for adopting 11 1/2 of the 15 model laws the auto safety group has recommended  that states adopt. Achieving a high score in the ranking has become more difficult as the group has ratcheted up its goals for tougher laws.

Ranking first in safety in this year's list was the District of  Columbia, which was credited with adopting 13 1/2 of the model laws. New Jersey and  Illinois also scored  higher than Maryland. At  the bottom was  South  Dakota, with only three of the recommended laws.

The laws cover such areas as required safety devices (seat belts and motorcycle  helmets), child passenger safety, teen driving,  drunk-driving and distracted driving.

Areas in which the group said Maryland  fell short were its failure to set 16 as the minimum age for a learner's permit (it did raise the bar to 15 years, 9 months),  passenger and cell phone  restrictions on teen drivers and an ignition interlock requirement for all drunk drivers.

Maryland improved its score by adopting the texting  ban and by raising its minimum age for an unrestricted license to 18 in 2009.

 

Posted by Michael Dresser at 3:33 PM |
Categories: On the roads
        

Charm City Circulator provokes reader questions

With

Sun photo/Jed Kirschbaum

Veolia Transportation driver Paulette Coles drives the new Orange Route bus.

Monday's debut of the Charm City Circulator come a spate of reader questions about the conception of the new service. They're good questions, but the city's answers make a lot of sense too.

Johns Houst asks:

 If the circulator is such a great deal, why not extend circulator service to JHU’s Homewood Campus from Penn Station rather than install the “planned” trolley?

Jamie Kendrick, the city's deputy transportation director, said the planned Purple Route service due to open this spring will turn around at Penn Station for two basic reasons: cost and time.

In other words, the extra cost of extending the service to Johns Hopkins' Homewood campus would over-extend the circulator's budget while blowing its timetable. One fact of life in the bus business is that the longer a route extends, the harder it is to maintain a consistent schedule  and the more things that can go wrong.

Kendrick said there are still efforts being made by the Charles Street Development Corp. to organize a trolley service that would serve Homewood, but the financing hasn't materialzed yet.

My view  is that the city is wise not to try to be all things to all people with the circulator service. If it takes off, there is always the possibility of expansion. As for Homewood, there is ample service to the campus aboard several MTA routes at a cost of $1.60 each way, while students and faculty are served by their own free campus bus service.

Tom Giossi asks:

I may have missed this somewhere in the coverage of the circulator over the past few months, but why don't the Purple and Green lines connect?  i.e. someone going from Penn Station/Federal Hill to Fells Point would have to change lines twice

This is an excellent question: One of the things that is glaringly obvious about the Circulator map is that the Purple and Green lines never cross. (The Orange Route connects with both.)

But what constitutes a connection anyway? The light rail and the Metro subway, for instance, interconnect in a manner of speaking. The both have Lexington Market stations and there's a State Center/Cultural Center connection, though it can take a two-block walk to make a transfer. It doesn't help that the areas are not particularly inviting after dark and the  signage is substandard.

With the Purple and Green routes, the connection or lack of it is a similar story. A rider can bridge the gap between the lines by walking the roughly 2 1/2 blocks from the Purple Route's Light Street stop behind the Mitchell Courthouse to the Green Route's City Hall stop. 

Kendrick said the city tinkered with various ways of bringing the routes closer but couldn't do so without throwing off the running times on one route or another. Given the  maze of one-way streets downtown, I couldn't see an obvious solution. Good signage pointing toward the walking connection would be a  partial solution.

Another reader, known only to me as Richard, inquires:

Although its only one block, I cannot figure out why the Circulator headed towards Fells Point stops at Eutaw & in front of the old convention center but NOT at Howard Street, you know, at the Convention Center Light Rail stop. Because of this there is no direct connection with the light rail (since Lombard at Howard stop is one block from the Baltimore St stop.

Didn't Baltimore learn its lesson when it built the Light Rail at Lexington Market two blocks from the Metro stop?

So here's the question yet again: How far can one line's stop be from another line's stop and still constitute a connection? My inclination, being relatively healthy and mobile, is to count anything that comes within a block as a pretty decent connection. Kendrick said the choice of stops before the Convention Center and Camden Yards -- each a block from the light rail line -- was a matter of properly spacing a limited number of stops. But, he said, the system is subject to tweaking and adapting as city officials learn more about riders' needs.

Those who think a one-block walk is too much to ask of riders should let the city know their feelings. Don't count on me to join the chorus of complaints.

The last question is the easiest. It comes from Charles H. Stinemire:

Can you tell me how to get a more detailed map of the Charm City Circulator?

Right here:

 

http://www.charmcitycirculator.com/content/route-maps

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted by Michael Dresser at 10:57 AM | | Comments (14)
Categories: City bus service
        

January 11, 2010

How new media and old can work together

The Maryland Politics Watch blog had the scoop: The Maryland Transit Administration had a plan in the works for listening devices on its buses. But the Baltimore Sun and Getting There blog had the reach and reporting resources to take the story to a higher level and bring about change. After The Sun contacted the Maryland Department of Transportation, the notion was quickly jettisoned.

It was nice of Journalism.org, a publication of the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, to notice. It is the practice of the newspaper, and the blog, to give credit where credit is due. Blogs such as MPW are an important part of the information chain, and when their vigilance brings a matter such as this to light, they deserve a shout-out.

 

Posted by Michael Dresser at 2:10 PM |
Categories: MTA bus system
        

January 7, 2010

Charm City Circulator bus makes debut Monday

 

The Sun/Jed Kirschbaum

An early version of the city's Charm City Circulator bus is displayed at a 2008 news conference. 

The Charm City Circulator, Baltimore's long-awaited and long-delayed free downtown shuttle bus system, will make its debut Monday under less-than-festive circumstances.

One of the key initiatives of Mayor Sheila Dixon's transportation-minded administration, the Circulator will hit the streets just five days after the announcement that the mayor would step down from office next month as part of a plea bargain of in her public corruption case.

Before the announcement, the mayor had been expected to be the  headliner at a news conference to kick off the service.

Late Wednesday, just hours after the announcement, Dixon spokesman Scott Peterson said the mayor is still expected to show up Monday.

"She's still  the mayor and the Circulator was an accomplishment of this administration, so I hope she does," he said. "It's a big deal for the city."

Peterson said the event could actually be less awkward with Dixon's legal issues resolved and the mayor's lame-duck status  confirmed.

"Life is easier now," he said.

The Baltimore Transportation Department will launch the circulator by beginning service on its east-west Orange Route bettween Hollins Market and Harbor East via the Inner Harbor. It plans to start two other routes -- a north-south route between  Penn Station and Federal Hill and a route connecting Johns Hopkins Hospital with Harbor East and City Hall -- in the spring. Buses on the routes are scheduled to come at 10-minute intervals.

Transit buffs can get a "sneak preview" of the new hybrid-electric buses Friday from noon until 2 p.m. at Katyn Circle in Harbor East.

Peterson specifically requested that Washington-area media be alerted to the Circulator's debut, which he believes will have significant appeal to D.C. day visitors.

"For D.C. folks, Baltimore is Federal Hill, the Inner Harbor and Fells Point," he said.

So all you Washington media folks who drop in on this blog, consider yourself notified.

 

 

Posted by Michael Dresser at 7:00 AM | | Comments (13)
Categories: City bus service
        

January 5, 2010

Boston St. to be closed at I-95

A stretch of Boston Street east of Canton at Interstate 95 will be closed this weekend for bridge repairs required after a girder was damaged in a vehicle crash.

Traffic will be closed between Ponca St. and the I-95 southbound ramp to the Fort McHenry Tunnnel from 10 p.m. Friday until 5 a.m. Monday, the Maryland Transportation Authority said. Detours will be posted.

That must have been some crash.

 

Posted by Michael Dresser at 3:34 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: On the roads
        

Amtrak fatality causes MARC ripple

A fatal incident this morning on the Amtrak tracks in Middle River this morning continues to affect service on the MARC Penn Line -- perhaps dragging into the evening commute.

Fourteen-year-old Anne Marie Stickle was killed just after 9 a.m. when she was hit by and Amtrak train while she and another teenager were walking along the tracks between her home in the 700 block  of Maple Crest Drive and Kenwood High School. According to police, the girls were not authorized to be on the tracks.

Here are some of the recent service updates issued by MARC:

 Due to earlier delays and cancellations, train 520 northbound Washington to  Perryville and train 535 southbound Perryville to Washington are both cancelled for today.  The next departure will be train 422. 

Passengers for Martins Airport, Edgewood, Aberdeen, and Perryville should ride train 422 to Baltimore, where alternate transportation will be available to your station. 

Stand by for updates on alternate arrangements for train 535.

The MTA later updated that notice with this:

Train 433 (3:30pm departure from Baltimore) will hold at Baltimore Penn to operate on train 535's schedule.  Train 433 will make all station stops today only.

For train 535's passengers from Perryville, Aberdeen, Edgewood, and Martins, Amtrak train #171 will stop to pick up MARC passengers.  The following are ESTIMATED departure times for Amtrak train 171 at MARC
stations:

Perryville-2:55pm
Aberdeen-3:04pm
Edgewood-3:10pm
Martins Airport-3:18pm

These are ESTIMATED times.  Please arrive at your station at least fifteen minutes early to ensure that you make the train.

We regret the inconvenience of the disruptions this afternoon.

 

Posted by Michael Dresser at 2:16 PM | | Comments (6)
Categories: MARC train
        

MARC train delayed by 'police action'

This just in from MARC, with minor editng:

Penn Line - Train 521, the 9:01 a.m. departing Perryville, is being delayed by police action in the Middle River area, according to the MTA. The duration of the delay is unknown at this time. MTA will operate an southbound train from Baltimore at 947 a.m. using extra equipment.... more to follow.

Posted by Michael Dresser at 9:52 AM | | Comments (1)
        

MARC riders: Now I feel your pain

As an occasional rider of MARC commuter trains, I had enjoyed a remarkable string of good luck. Never had I encountered the kind of infuriating delays that I have written about other people enduring over the years. My MARC experiences,  unlike those of many readers, were almost entirely positive.

That streak ended Monday evening when I arrived in a rush at Penn Station to catch the 7:05 p.m. train to Perryville, where I hoped to catch a late dinner with  my wife at the excellent Grist Mill Tavern. Greeting me on the board  was a notification that the train would be 40 minutes late.

It turned out  to be more like 45 minutes, By the time we arrived, about 9 p.m., the restaurant was closed and we had to scramble to make other arrangements. What an  authentic taste  of llife on MARC.

Anyway, there was one glimmer of light. It was nice to see that the Java Moon restaurant and bar had opened in Penn Station about a month ago -- giving the delayed traveler the option of having a  cold beer and sandwich instead of just sitting on the station's uncomfortable seats. The new place fills a longstanding void at Penn Station.  Cheers!

Posted by Michael Dresser at 9:06 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: MARC train
        

Thanks, I think, to MPW for the mention

Thanks to Adam Pagnucco and Maryland Politics Watch for their mention in their roundup of the best and worst of Maryland media in 2009. MPW applauded The Sun for unleashing me to unleash Baltimore Guy, my undiplomatic alter ego with a Patapsco-centric point of view  that matches Pagnucco's Montgo-mania, to comment on transportation issues.

What brought Baltimore Guy out of his Natty Boh-induced stupor was a $4.6 billion proposed project to widen Interstate 270 by adding two express tolls lanes in each direction. Baltimore Guy thought that was a big waste of dough that would simply channel growth away from Baltimore. And he didn't like the statements from Montgomery politicians that suggested that their  county  was the only jurisdiction that could possible aspire to be an "engine of growth" -- as if the rest of Maryland were chopped liver.

As Pagnucco noted, some of the reaction from Montgomery was not entirely appreciative. But after Baltimore Guy weighed in, the Montgomery County Council started scaling back expectations by supporting a more modest version of the boondoggle. Coincidence? Maybe. But I think the word's out that no county (or pair of counties, if you include junior partner Frederick)  can stage a multibillion raid on the state's coffers without some accountability to the rest of the state.

Meanwhile, here's hoping the folks at MPW keep up the good work in 2010.

Posted by Michael Dresser at 8:06 AM |
        

January 4, 2010

Bus companies offer rides to playoff

At least two Baltimore-area charter bus companies are offering bus trips to Foxborough, Mass., for next Sunday's playoff game against the New England Patriots.

 Hunt Valley Motor Coach is offering a marathon round trip leaving early Sunday morning and returning after the 1 p.m. game for $99. Riders need to secure their own game tickets.

Bill Rohrbaugh's Charter Service Inc. is offering a  similar trip, with no overnight stay and no tickets included, for $82 round-trip. Its bus departs Manchester at 2:15 a.m. and makes stops at Timonium and White Marsh.

If you know of any local charter companies or travel agencies offering  package trips to the game, please post the offer as a coomment and I'll try to get it up on the blog. Please leave a email address for verification.

 

 

Posted by Michael Dresser at 2:17 PM | | Comments (5)
        

Is HEAT team cooling down on speeders?

An interesting document found its way to me recently. It comes from within the Maryland Transportation Authority Police and it lays out the enforcement activity undertaken by the force's Special Operations Division HEAT TEAM -- a unit that patrols certain sections of Interstate 95, state toll facilities and other roads in unmarked vehicles.

The statistics, as of Dec. 5, show some interesting trends. Members of the team have been far more likely this year to give warnings than traffic tickets. Last year, the number of warnings (2820)  and the number of citations (2622) were running about even. This year, the number of warnings (3160) was almost double the number of citations. Does this indicate the MdTA Police are getting soft on speeders? Or are they trying to cut down on court overtime hours, which are running at about half last year's level?

Also interesting is that the number of traffic stops during which  the team conducts searches is up sharply  from  year to year -- from 176 in  2008 to 319 in 2009. That has resulted in more felony drug arrests this year (26) compared with six last year and an increase in misdemeanor drug arrests. But arrests on outstanding  warrants and on serious traffic charges are down significantly.

Members of the transportation authority police have been reluctant to speak out since former Chief Gary McLhinney drummed Officer George Tarburton out of law enforcement because Tarburton blew  the whistle on lax port security. But it certainly would be interesting to hear the story behind these numbers.

Posted by Michael Dresser at 10:06 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: On the roads
        

A rare commute from Perryville

For reasons involving my wife's employment, I found myself this morning on the 6:30 a.m. MARC Penn Line train out of Perryville, bound for Baltimore. It might be routine for some commuters, but it was a new experience for this Howard County auto commuter.

All in all, it was not at all a bad way to go, and with a connection on the No. 64 bus, I was at work in an hour and a quarter. There's no crowding on the stretch northeast of Baltimore, so it was quite comfortable.

I do have one question for the MTA, however. Why just one ticket machine in the Perryville station? The lines do stack a bit up there, and it seems foolish not to have some redundancy to deal with the inevitable glitches.

See you there again Tuesday.

 

Posted by Michael Dresser at 8:45 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: MARC train
        

This is your body on an airport scanner

Transportation Security Administration   

Here's an example of the images that would be seen by a Transportation Security Administration officer operating one of the TDA's advanced whole-body image screening devices.

Some folks think such technology will bring the end of civilization as we know it. I don't see what the big deal is. If it will do a better job of detecting explosives than a conventional screening device -- and experts say it will -- why not use whole-body scanners on every passenger? That way there will be no questions about discrimination or profiling.

More on the issue in this morning's Getting There column in the Baltimore Sun.

 

Posted by Michael Dresser at 7:00 AM | | Comments (9)
Categories: Air travel
        
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About Michael Dresser
Michael Dresser has been an editor, reporter and columnist with The Sun longer than Baltimore's had a subway. He's covered retailing, telecommunications, state politics and wine. Since 2004, he's been The Sun's transportation writer. He lives in Ellicott City with his wife and travel companion, Cindy.

His Getting There column appears on Mondays. Mike's blog will be a forum for all who are interested in highways, transit and other transportation issues affecting Baltimore, Maryland and the region.
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