Another MARC complaint goes unanswered
Did the Maryland Transit Administration blow off a letter passed on the the Governor's Office? Or did the governor's people fumble what should have been an east handoff? (UPDATE: Answer at end of posting)
Either way, MARC rider Scott Klinger of Baltimore says he has yet to receive a reply to his May 21 letter to Gov. Martin O'Malley except for a form letter saying the MTA would give him a full response. Since then, Klinger said, he's heard nothing about the complaints he lodged about shoddy MARC service that caused him to miss a social event in Baltimore.
Here's what Klingers has to say now:
Prior to moving to Baltimore four years ago, I spent 25 years living in Boston and happily riding the MBTA. Over that time, I contacted the MBTA on many occassions to either compliment exceptional service, or to report problems that needed addressing. There was not a time when I did not receive a personalized tailored response directly to my letter or phone call. A few times I received phone calls within hours of sharing a concern, and a thoughtful reply never took more than a couple of weeks to arrive. My point is that models of terrific public transit customer service do exist, the question for the folks at MARC is are they willing to aspire to be the best, or to settle for aspirations of comfortable mediocrity.
Attached are my letter to the Governor and a second file (labelled MARC tracker) that is a screen shot of the postings on MARC tracker as our train sat dead in the tracks. I sent the screen shots to the Governor as well. I have added the annotations to the MARC Tracker file to explain to you what was going on at the time. The annotations, other than my circling the 6:60 PM time, did not appear in what I sent to the Governor.
Grateful for your work, and still waiting for my reply from the MTA,
And this is Klingers's original letter to O'Malley:
Dear Governor O’Malley,
My wife and I had hoped to attend tonight’s closing Cezanne party at the Baltimore Museum of Art. We both left our jobs in Washington DC early to catch the 5:20 MARC train home to Baltimore. After sitting dead in the tracks for nearly an hour, without air conditioning, and with inoperable toilets, they are finally towing us back to Union Station. The MTA website notes the train’s mechanical problem and notes it is running 15 minutes late (6:23 pm posting, when train was in fact almost an hour late.) Before the rescue train arrived, people started jumping out of the doors and running up to a nearby road (Route 50) and flagged down a cab. Neither of us endorse people running down busy train tracks, but I hope both of us can feel these passengers frustrations as well as the rest of us who remain hostages with no information.
I called the MTA information line at 6:20 and spoke to a woman who tried to be helpful, but explained that there hadn’t been an update in more than half an hour. She said “what do you want me to do?” I asked if she could please call the dispatcher so we could tell our fellow passengers what was going on. It took her 10 minutes to reach a dispatcher, only to learn they didn’t know anything either. What kind of operation is MTA running where people staffing customer information lines, don’t have information and when they finally get through to the dispatch office they don’t know anything either? I question whether the MTA should even have a federal operating license, with such a lack of information flow. This is more than a matter of convenience; it is a matter of safety.
If this were a one-off stroke of bad luck, it could easily be forgiven. The problem is these sort of lapses happen all of the time. The culture of the MTA is one of complete non-accountability. When we have complained the MTA folks blame Amtrak, and Amtrak in turn blames MARC.
Some examples, in early-April I rode the MARC train from Washington to Baltimore. It was a local train making all nine stops. The conductor never once came through the coach to collect the tickets. He had nine chances to do his job and collect the revenue, but he declined to do so. This was far from the first time this has happened. When I arrived at Baltimore Penn Station I went to the customer service desk and asked to speak to the station manager. I was told there was none. They gave me MARC’s complaint number to call. I called the complaint number when I got home. The gentleman who answered was quite nice, but he had no complaint forms. He told me no one ever complains about MARC! I told him I was upset that the conductor had not picked up tickets. He had deprived MARC of several thousand dollars of revenue. The complaint operator said, “why are you upset, you got a free ride?” I responded “I am a taxpayer as well as a customer, and I depend on MARC more than any other state service. When there are on-going service problems that are never addressed due to lack of funds, and part of the reason there’s no funds is because conductors fail to collect tickets 10% of the time, I get upset.” He took down my complaint and asked whether I wanted a response. I said I did. Three weeks later I got an email from the head of MARC customer service, saying my complaint had been sent to Amtrak for investigation. Three weeks later! Do you think the conductor even faintly remembers that train ride? And still I have received nothing from Amtrak more than six weeks later.
My wife has called and talked to the head of MARC directly. He poured out a long explanation that said he is frustrated with Amtrak as the riders are. If this is so, why doesn’t the state of Maryland replace Amtrak? The MBTA in Boston was in the same position operating trains on track owned by Amtrak but they fired Amtrak as both train operator and maintenance provider and service improved dramatically. As you know, Virginia is now in the process of replacing Amtrak to operate VRE trains. I am sure that the State has a contract with Amtrak, but if Amtrak is failing to operate and maintain equipment and even collect fares, then aren’t they in violation of the contract, and can’t the Attorney General seek redress in court? And can’t we call upon our State Congressional delegation to raise cain with Amtrak next time their funding request comes up – maybe the federal taxpayers should insist on management changes within Amtrak as a condition for continued funding.
Regardless of the problems caused by Amtrak, there’s a lack of rigorous accountability within the MTA and MARC. The MTA bought the new celebrated locomotives that weren’t properly qualified to be put in service. I presume that MARC also selected the provider of the MARC Tracker software, which is so unreliable as to be useless. Trains not tracked are the norm, as is false information. Our train which never made it to New Carrolton is listed as three minutes late arriving at Bowie State in the attached screen shot. Since this is a serious letter, it is worth a quick laugh noting the trains that will arrive at 6:60 and 6:61, a problem with MARC Tracker since it was launched more than a year ago. It has been repeatedly called to the attention of MARC but never fixed. Similarly the links to train schedules from the MARC Tracker website have been broken for more than six months. I wrote to MARC they thanked me, and said they’d be fixed, six months later they are broken.
I know the MTA has more responsibilities than mass transit, but they are treating mass transit as the orphan child in their family. Roads are being widened and new roads built throughout the region, and I don’t resent that, but how about some attention being paid to those of us who try to live a little more gently and take the train.
I know you care deeply about the environment and about the State, and especially about those of us who live in Baltimore. We know you stand for excellence in government. We know MARC is not coming close to meeting that standard.
Our friends and I talk regularly about how one of the things that could move Baltimore back to a position of strength and vibrancy is reliable mass transit. We have a great city, and lots of vacant homes. We are a lot more affordable than DC and have a lovely, livable culture. But if you live here and can’t get to work in DC with any sense of comfort or reliably of mass transit, most people aren’t going to endure as we have. They’ll live in Virginia or someplace accessible to Metro. We’ve been patiently waiting as MARC service improvements have been promised, but most of those promises have been broken, time and again.
We beg you to take up these issues with Secretary Swaim-Staley. Please let her know that tens of thousands of Marylanders count on MARC to be safe AND reliable. Please tell her that passengers are so frustrated with the service that they are jumping off trains endangering themselves and others. Tell her this is not the way Maryland is to be run and that the buck-passing needs to stop and the state needs to deal with the lack of accountability within MARC’s culture.
It’s now 7:20 and we are once again in Union Station where we left two hours ago. We will miss the Cezanne party at the BMA, something we have looked forward to. Others are in worse shape having missed their flights at BWI. I am sure that our thousand fellow travelers have their own disappointments at the loss of time with their families and friends. I hope we can count on you to make sure today’s experience is the rare exception, rather than the acceptable norm that it seems to be.
We look forward with anticipation to a reply from you, or from one of your staff.
Scott Klinger and Kathy Brown
This is not the first example of mishandled correspondence about MARC too appear on this blog. This is the first involving the governor's office. Perhaps somebody at the State House might want to give the MTA a little nudge -- unless they're the ones who dropped the ball.
UPDATE: MTA spokesman Terry Owens provided the following answer:
Our records show MTA received the letter from the Governor's office June 6th. A draft was prepared June 10th. Some additional research was required because of the complexity of the issues raised. It was then unfortunately lost in the correspondence system. We have found the letter and will respond appropriately.